Going Positive to Beat a Negative

Free-Range Thinking | January 2002

How are colleges across America successfully discouraging dangerous activities from excessive drinking to unsafe sex? The key is shining a spotlight on the students who aren’t doing those things.

Back in my Wonder Bread days, I would often try to justify some out-of-the-ordinary activity by telling my mother, “Everyone at school is doing it.” Invariably, she would fire back, “And if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you want to do that, too?” That always took the wind out of my sails. With one devastating question (standard issue for parents, I later learned), my mother had destroyed my case. Even to me, “everybody is doing it” suddenly sounded like a pathetic and tired rationale.

If only Michael Haines had been around back then. Today, he runs the National Social Norms Resource Center in DeKalb, Illinois, and his organization is breathing new life into my old argument. On college campuses, Haines and a new breed of “social norms marketers” are using variations on the “everybody is doing it” theme to promote healthy activities and reduce the unhealthy variety. More importantly, he appears to be on the cutting edge of a behavior-change technique that may have much broader applications for public interest groups.

To demonstrate how social norms marketing works, Haines walked me through his first successful effort, which was conducted at Northern Illinois University. During the 1989-90 school year, Haines and his team tackled the problem of excessive drinking among NIU’s 23,000 students. They began by gathering data on the problem, and their research revealed an important disparity between perception and reality. According to Haines’ survey, NIU students believed that 69% of the student body consumed 6 drinks or more at the average party, but the survey showed that only 44% actually drank that much.

When students believe that most of their classmates are heavy drinkers, Haines explained, they are more inclined to have that extra beer or two. His study confirmed, however, that moderate drinking (defined as 5 drinks or fewer) was actually the norm at NIU. “This caused us to believe that if we could change the perceptions, we might be able to change the behavior,” Haines said. His team conducted focus groups among students to test responsible drinking messages and to learn what information channels the target audience was tuned into.

The essential message of his campaign was a straightforward statement of the social norm uncovered in the research: “Most NIU students drink 5 or fewer when they drink.” With a modest (to the point of miniscule) media budget of $7,000, ads were placed in the campus newspaper (read daily by 70% of the student body), and posters were strategically placed where students would have time to read them: cafeteria lines, buses, and bathrooms.

After one year, Haines reported, heavy drinking on NIU’s campus dropped by 14%. Buoyed by this success, the campaign continued and by 1999 the problem had been cut nearly in half. This significant behavioral shift yielded two other benefits that Haines called the real payoff of this effort: self-inflicted injuries related to drinking were down 47% over ten years, and injuries to others were down 75%.

Haines’ success at NIU has not gone unnoticed on other campuses, especially given the deeply ingrained lore (reinforced by movies and television) that going off to college and drinking heavily at parties go together like gin and tonic. According to Haines, social norms campaigns were conducted at roughly 10% of US colleges and universities in 1999, and the number of success stories is steadily increasing (see box).

The broader potential for this approach is illustrated outside of college campuses. Under the banner “Most of Us,” Montana is using social norms marketing to promote seat belt usage, prevent drunk driving, and reduce smoking among teenagers (see ad). A campaign is also being contemplated for northern California to change driving habits in the San Francisco Bay area on high pollution days.

Haines offers a three-step process for public interest groups (or other behavior change agents) who want to try the social norms approach:

Step 1: Identify the norm you wish to promote. This means conducting the research (similar to the drinking survey at NIU) that validates the existence of a positive behavior within a given community. If the research reveals a disparity between perception and reality, the conditions may be ripe for a social norms campaign, but a wide disparity is not essential.

Step 2: Model or describe the behavior you want to encourage. At NIU, Haines depicted students drinking responsibly in campus newspaper ads and posters so the target audience would see themselves, literally, doing the desired behavior.

Step 3: Promote the behavior in the channels of communication your audience is tuned into while using the spokespeople they are most likely to trust.

The phrase “everybody’s doing it” provides a ready handle for understanding social norms marketing, but Haines was quick to point out that there’s more to this success story. “It’s not only that we tend to do what others are doing,” he said, “we also suppress what we’re doing if we think it’s different. [Social norms marketing] is liberating people to express good behaviors, not necessarily change their behavior to be like others. And that may be the most important aspect of this phenomenon.”

To learn more about social norms marketing, visit the National Social Norms Resource Center at www.socialnorm.org.

A public health campaign in northwestern Montana is using the social norms approach
to reduce smoking among 12-17 year olds. (For more information visit www.mostofus.org.)

Social Norms Marketing Success Stories
Universities reducing heavy alcohol consumption:

University of Arizona: 29% reduction (over 4 yrs.)
Western Washington University: 20% reduction (3 yrs.)
University of Missouri at Columbia: 20% reduction (2 yrs.)
University of Virginia: 20% reduction (2 yrs.)

 free-range follow-up

One Man’s “Norm” is Another Man’s “Proof.”

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (a recommendation from last July’s “Summer Reading List”) author Robert Cialdini discusses the same behavioral tendencies that Michael Haines is now capitalizing on. What Haines calls a “social norm” Cialdini labels “social proof,” but it essentially boils down to the same thing: we’re all still keeping up with the Joneses.

“The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us. It is the conduct of such people that gives us the greatest insight into what constitutes correct behavior for ourselves.”

Robert Cialdini


Stop Talking. Start Connecting.

As thoughtful public interest communicators, we all know (hopefully) that every word we utter has its own emotional resonance. That’s why, for example, environmentalists call for “tough standards” (which our audience believes will protect them) as opposed to “laws” or “regulations” (which that same audience will interpret as government interference and red tape.)

When communicating internally, however, we tend not to be as careful. Consider the phrase “talking points.” To my ear, this has always connoted what we want to say as opposed to what they will be able to hear. The term does nothing to remind the composer of said points that the audience’s perspective is critically important, and that if you don’t find a way to connect with your audience it won’t matter how elegantly worded or fact-packed your points may be.

So let’s start composing connecting points. With that label, we will automatically remind ourselves that our task is not simply to answer the question, “What do we want to tell them?” but to consider several questions: “What does our audience understand about this issue?” “What are they capable of hearing?” “Who are the spokespeople they are most likely to connect with?” Answer those questions, and you’ll be doing a lot more than talking.