I just read a fascinating study, thanks to my Google Alert for “social norms”. We are often faced with the dilemma of the behavior that we want to promote is NOT normative and so does not seem appropriate for a social norms campaign, even if there is a large misperception. Let’s take a hypothetical example. Suppose in a survey of college students we found that:

  • 26% of students have never used alcohol.
  • The majority of respondents think that only 5% of students have never used alcohol.

26% is very far from being a “norm” (more than 50%) but there is still very significant misperception. Nonetheless, we would never recommend “marketing” the fact that 26% of students have never used alcohol.

Well, the study I just read, which focused on increasing the purchase of environmentally friendly products in an online shopping environment, suggests there may be an effective way to use non-normative behavior in social marketing. One of the very interesting points the study makes is about the difference in the positive and negative valence of similar expressions. Consider these examples, suggested by the study, and both truthful ways to describe the above finding from our hypothetical survey:

  • Some students chose not to drink alcohol.
  • Not many students chose not to drink alcohol.

According to research cited in this study, the first statement should encourage people to think about the reasons for choosing not to drink alcohol, while the second statement would not encourage further thinking.

Definitely worth a read, especially if you are challenged by promoting behaviors that are not yet normative in your audience. The title links to the article.


Nudging sustainable consumption:The use of descriptive norms to promote a minority behavior in a realistic online shopping environment


Christophe Demarque , Laetitia Charalambides, Denis J. Hilton, Laurent Waroquier


Our research examined effective ways of presenting true descriptive norm information about sustainable consumption in a realistic online shopping environment, even when the current norms for purchasing green products are low. In Experiment 1, participants presented with both “strong” and “weak” formulations of descriptive norms purchased more eco-labeled products and spent more money in comparison with a control condition. Using a different population, Experiment 2 confirmed these results for strong norms, but not for weak ones, and eliminated product salience and differential recall of norms as explanations for these effects. Overall, these findings suggest that even though current levels of green consumption may be relatively low, they can be truthfully described in ways that promote sustainable consumption in a shopping environment with real incentives. These methods can be easily adopted by supermarket chains and department stores.


Demarque, C., Charalambides, L., Hilton, D. J., & Waroquier, L. (2015). Nudging sustainable consumption: The use of descriptive norms to promote a minority behavior in a realistic online shopping environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology.