A social norm is a sociological concept that refers to explicit or implicit rules that guide behaviors that occur in a social context. Social norms are transmitted through formal channels such as organizational policies, or by informal channels such as stories, rituals, role-modeling, or nonverbal communication. Norms vary by social group, and individuals may alter their behavior to conform with different groups.

There are two different but related kinds of social norms.

Descriptive norms refer to how a majority in a group actually behaves.

Injunctive norms refer to the beliefs among a majority about how people “ought” to behave.

For example, people living in a residential neighborhood may believe they ought to recycle as much of their waste as possible (injunctive norms). However, they see that only a few houses on their street have recycling bins next to the trash cans on trash pick-up day, leading to the perception that most people do not recycle (descriptive norm).

The basic premise of the social norms approach is that we tend to conform to how other people behave. If we believe that most people behave in a certain way, it makes that behavior a more natural or attractive option. Research has found that individuals often have misperceptions about the behaviors of other people, leading to erroneous beliefs about social norms. The social norms approach aims to correct individuals’ misperceptions about their peer groups by providing them with accurate information about their peers.

Social norms approach + social marketing = social norms marketing

The social norms approach uses positive messages to promote the belief that the majority of a group of people practice a desirable behavior.

Social marketing uses principles of marketing and advertising to “sell” behavior changes, with the goal of benefiting the individual or society in general, rather than generating profits for a business.

Social norms marketing campaigns communicate social norms messages using media that is appealing to the target audience. Recent research identified four elements of effective social norms marketing campaigns (Burchell, Rettie, & Patel, 2013):

1. Use of marketing practices through all phases of the campaign.

2. Selection of appropriate reference groups (the groups that the target audience associates or identifies with).

3. Whether the target audience believes the social norms message (credibility).

4. Avoiding the unintended effect of increasing undesirable behaviors.


The study of the powerful impact that norms have on both thought and behavior is a well-established area of research in the social sciences, especially in the fields of sociology and social psychology.

The specific application of the social norms approach to college drinking behavior was first suggested by H. Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz in 1986. Their research yielded two important findings. First, that most students on their campus thought that the norms for both the frequency and the amount of drinking among their peers were higher than they actually were. Second, that students generally believed that their peers were more permissive in their personal attitudes about substance use than was in fact the case. Correcting such misperceptions, these researchers suggested, might reduce heavy drinking and related harm.

Note: The study referred to above is:
Perkins, H. W. & Berkowitz, A. D. Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming. International Journal of the Addictions, 1986, 21, 961-976

In the 1989-90 academic year, the health promotion staff at Northern Illinois University (NIU), led by Michael Haines, became the first to use social marketing methods to inform students that—contrary to what they believed—the majority of their peers were in fact moderate and safe drinkers.

Annual self-report health assessment surveys and other data gathered at NIU over a multi-year period showed dramatic increases in the percentage of students who correctly perceived the moderate campus norm, along with significant concurrent increases in safer drinking and abstaining, as well as decreases in alcohol-related injuries.


Berkowitz, A. D. (2005). An overview of the social norms approach. Chapter 13 in Lederman, L. C., & Steward, L. P. (eds.) Changing the Culture of College Drinking: A Socially Situated Health Communication Campaign. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Social Norms campaigns have worked successfully to change behavior related to health risks such as alcohol use, seat belt use, smoking, teen sexual behavior, parental behavior, physical activity, and the seeking of mental health care. Social norms marketing has even been used to change other types of behavior, such as home energy use and paying taxes.

There are 5 basic steps to a social norms marketing program:

1. Understand your audience: Who is the target audience? What do they want?

2. Gather data: Surveys and focus groups are 2 common methods.

3. Develop and test the message: The information AND the presentation should fit your audience

4. Implement the campaign: Examples of social norms campaign materials

5. Evaluate the intervention:

  • Did the intervention reach the intended audience?
  • Was there a reduction in the audience’s misperceptions?
  • Did the audience change targeted behaviors?
  • Was there a reduction in harmful consequences related to the risky behavior?


For more information about creating a social norms marketing program, visit our page For Practitioners

See our For Practitioners section for websites related to social norms marketing or substance abuse prevention.

Some written materials on social norms marketing programs are:

Social Norms Guidebook. (2010). John McAlaney, Bridgette M. Bewick, and Jennifer Bauerle.

The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. (2003). Wesley Perkins (Editor), Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

A Guide to Marketing Social Norms for Health Promotion in Schools and Communities(2005), Michael Haines, Wesley Perkins, Richard Rice and Gregory Baker.

Several ongoing surveys collect health data about college students:

The National College Health Assessment surveys college students about their health-related behavior, health status, and perceptions about others.

The Journal of American College Health focuses on college student health.


Yes. In addition to the resources on our website, NSNC offers consultation services to help you create a survey, gather and analyze data about the population with whom you are working, and design a social norms marketing intervention. Contact us at nsnc@msu.edu for more information