26 May 2023

Centuries before the ‘invention’ of psychology, the poet John Donne already understood an important principle of psychology, it is not just us who influences society, society also influences us.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” – John Donne

Centuries before the ‘invention’ of psychology, the poet John Donne already understood an important principle of psychology, it is not just us who influences society, society also influences us. In many surprising ways, our behaviour is governed by what everyone else around us is doing.

Imagine for a moment you are in a lift; the door opens and four people enter and stand facing the wall with their backs to the door. What do you do? Face the lift doors like a normal human? or slowly pivot and face the wall?  

In our incredibly individualistic culture, we tend to think we are and should be, immune to the effects of the herd.

But most of the time the opposite is true, whether it’s obeying road rules, paying our taxes, reducing energy consumption, or avoiding danger, following the herd is an excellent guide to how we should behave.

For example, in a famous UK study instead of threatening taxpayers with fines, the letters simply stated “70% of people in your town pay their taxes on time”, this statement led to a 15% increase in people responding to the letter, a significant saving in administration and postal costs, as well as increasing tax revenue.  In another experiment at the Arizona Holiday Inn chain the simple message in the bathroom that “75% of people reused their towels at least once during their stay” increased towel recycling by 19%.

The power of ‘social norms’ works in both directions; it can be used to encourage both healthy and unhealthy behaviours.  For example, 279 households were given information on how their energy use compared to the average in their neighbourhood. They discovered that if someone was consuming above the neighbourhood average, they would decrease their energy consumption, saving themselves money and helping the environment.   

Importantly however if the customer was already consuming below the limit they would increase their energy consumption, creating a backfire effect where some householders did the opposite of what was desired!  

Telling someone that lots of other people are doing the wrong thing encourages that behaviour.  Unfortunately, these kinds of “negative social proof” messages are all too common.  Instead of saying 3 out of 4 children in Australia are not obese, we use the opposite statistic. Instead of saying ‘Thankyou to the majority of our customers who treat our staff with respect’, we are telling people that abuse of staff is common.

So you can imagine my shock and horror while standing at a bus stop on a rainy evening in Manchester, UK and discovering that all the bus stops had been plastered with the sign ‘85% of 15-year-old boys who drink alcohol, also have unprotected sex’. Signalling to every young man in Manchester that all their peers are both drinking AND having sex!

When we are designing campaigns or informing the public about the right behaviour we need to think more about the we, and not the me.

Instead of focusing on what individuals are doing think about what most people are doing.  If most people are doing the wrong thing don’t tell everyone!

There are many ways to influence behaviour, and social norms are not always the best ones to use.


About the Author

James is an experienced executive director with two decades of delivering training and change solutions on some of the largest programmes across the world. From his consultancy background, he brings an agile, lean startup project approach to managing large transformation programmes. He also brings a stakeholder-based and human-centred approach to his work through his training as a therapist and his work as a coach and facilitator.

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