Mollen, S., Ruiter, R. A. C., & Kok, G. (2010). Current issues and new directions in Psychology and Health: What are the oughts? The adverse effects of using social norms in health communication. Psychology & Health, 25(3), 265–270. doi: 10.1080/08870440903262812

Introduction: We are continuously influenced by other people. We are influenced by what they do, what they say and what they do not say. Other people’s behaviour guides our own actions because it provides social proof regarding what is considered appropriate or inappropriate conduct in a given situation (Cialdini, 1984, chap. 4). Imagine the following: You are at church and the preacher is highly engaged in his sermon. He talks passionately about how the Lord will guide all of us to our destiny, about the sins we may or may not have committed and about how we can pay penance for such sins. He concludes by providing recommendations on how we can follow a path of righteousness (for future reference of course) and then invites all to stand up and sing ‘All for Jesus’. In response, everyone gets up and starts singing passionately while clapping and dancing exuberantly. What would you do? Chances are that you would stand up and sing as well. Soon, you would start clapping your hands and when you look down you will perhaps even find yourself gently shaking your hips to the rhythm of the music.

While most European Christians may find this kind of behaviour somewhat inappropriate or at least a little unusual, it is in fact a fairly typical description of a North American gospel church service. If this kind of church service is unfamiliar to you and you found yourself sitting in the church described above, you would most likely let your actions be guided by the actions of those around you. In other words, you would likely conform to the behaviour or the social norm of the group because, in that particular situation, it would appear to be the most adaptive response.

Social norms are important predictors of behaviour and their predictive role is the context in which they are generally discussed. However, in this editorial, we will not focus on the predictive role of social norms. Rather, we will discuss why people conform to social norms and then extend this knowledge to the field of health communication and behaviour change. We will elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of using social norm messages, and then offer alternatives for the use of social norms in health communication messages.

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