Social Norms Approach

What is a social norms approach?

We’re all familiar with social norms, even if we don’t always stop to consider how they might be impacting our decisions and behaviour.

Social norms are those unspoken or sometimes explicit guidelines we follow when it comes to the behaviour we expect from ourselves and others. Social norms are specific to a community and can vary across groups and cultures. Shaking hands when you meet someone new is an example of a social norm.

Social norms are maintained through social pressure. If you go against a norm, your status within the group could be jeopardized. As social animals, group approval is particularly important to us – so targeting social norms can be a very powerful way to change attitudes and behaviours.

The trouble with social norms is that people sometimes misperceive them. For example, a man might go along with a sexist joke at the bar because he thinks that’s what’s expected by his peers, when in reality, most of the men are also privately uncomfortable. That means norms can sometimes make us behave in ways that go against our own beliefs.

Social norms approaches work to either target misperceived norms or, in cases where a harmful norm is consistent with most people’s beliefs, work with a community or social network to create new norms.

Why use a social norms approach to engage men?

There is strong evidence to support a social norms approach for engaging men. We all look to others for social cues on how to behave. For men in particular, the perceived attitudes of peers can be highly influential.

We all want to belong and fit in; it’s only natural. So, if we can change the expectations of the group, we can also change attitudes and behaviours.

What are the most promising ways to use a social norms approach?

To effectively target a gender inequitable or violent social norm, it’s really important to work with a specific community or social network where people have pre-existing relationships or connections. Our attitudes and actions are far more likely to be influenced by the people we know and respect.

That’s why it’s also essential to identify and work with “key influencers” within that group or network. Those are the people that others naturally look up to and emulate. That could include very different types of influencers, depending on the community and norm you’re targeting – from the local sports hero, to the company CEO, to the most social guy in the office.

You’ll also need to get your message out everywhere. A new norm has to be highly visible and very pervasive in order to take hold.

It’s also important to know that social norms take time to change. An effective social norms campaign will likely need at least three years to make an impact.

What is an example of putting a social norms approach into practice?

There are many examples of social media and marketing campaigns that aim to target gender inequitable social norms.

#momentsmatter is a new Alberta-based three-year, province-wide campaign targeting norms change by celebrating leaders who are taking a personal role in building positive and respectful workplace cultures that help stop sexual harassment.

The #momentsmatter campaign invites people to submit positive stories of simple actions people have taken to make their workplaces safer, emotionally healthier, and more inclusive.

By sharing good stories (i.e., modelling healthy norms and behaviours), the #momentsmatter campaign can encourage more actions that lead to better workplaces.

What else should I know before implementing social norms approaches?

Challenging a social norm can make people defensive. Norm change is not a linear process; typically, we see a “boomerang effect” before we see lasting change – so it is important to be prepared for that. Strategically framing messages to reduce defensiveness can help to mitigate backlash.

It’s also important to keep your focus on the positive norm. Rather than showing what not to do, we need to model the healthy behaviour we want to see. Men need to feel empowered that they are part of a solution, not just part of the problem.

Read more about social norms approaches:

In addition to the Shift research reports listed earlier, the following resources offer further information on social norms approaches: