Resisting sweet temptations: The role of social norms communication

Published on October 28th, 2016 – People are often influenced by what other do, or think one should do. In health communication these social norms are therefore frequently used to persuade people to engage in healthy behavior. However, not always with the same level of success. Recently Saar Mollen and colleagues studied how social norm information should be worded to encourage health eating. How the message should be formulated seems to depend on the specific social norm that is communicated.

Two types of social norms are typically distinguished. Descriptive norms pertain to the behavior of most others. For example, my colleagues generally eat fruit as a snack in between meals. Injunctive norms pertain to the conduct that is approved or disapproved of by most others. Such as, my colleagues disapprove of eating candy and cookies as a snack in between meals. The first message is positively worded. This message communicates that most people eat healthy (instead of don’t eat unhealthy; i.e., negatively worded). The second message is worded negatively. This message states that you shouldn’t eat unhealthy (instead of should eat healthy; i.e., positively worded).

Together with colleagues from Radboud University, Maastricht University and The George Washington University, Saar Mollen conducted two experiments among students. These studies examined whether a positive or negatively worded message works best and whether this depends on if we communicate about what we should do according to most others or the actual behavior of most others. Results of these studies show that people are more motived to consume fruit and also consume more fruit when they are exposed to negatively worded information on what most others think you should do. With regard to positively worded information about the actual behavior of others, a higher motivation to consume fruit was found, but not more fruit consumption. In sum, the wording should match the social norms communicated. So, if you want to resist that sweet temptation think of all those colleagues who think you shouldn’t eat candy.

Read more? 
Mollen, S., Holland, R.W., Ruiter, R.A.C., Rimal, R.N., & Kok, G. (in press).
When the frame fits the social picture. The effects of framed social norm messages on healthy and unhealthy food consumption.Communication Research doi: 10.1177/0093650216644648

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Published on 28-10-2016