The social norms approach is an environmental strategy gaining ground in interventional health campaigns (Perkins, 2003, p. 3). While conducting research in the mid 1980s, two researchers, H.W. Perkins and A.D. Berkowitz discovered that university students at a small U.S. school had exaggerated beliefs about the normal frequency and consumption habits of other students with regard to alcohol. These inflated perceptions were not exclusive to that one small college; they were also discovered in universities of all types, with varying populations and locations. And, despite the fact that college drinking is at elevated levels, the perceived amount nearly always exceeds actual behavior (Perkins, 2003).
According to Perkins, individuals associate the most memorable and salient behavior to be indicative of the behavior of the majority. Thus, people will remember the one individual who had eight beers and danced on the table more than the majority of the attendees who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol or abstained all together. Individuals will then strive to be in the presumed majority by adhering to the pseudo-norms and elevated perceptions that are most memorable and salient. The exaggerated perceptions, or rather misperceptions, of peer behavior will continue to influence the habits of the majority, if they are unchallenged (Perkins 2003). A social norms approach determines the exaggerated and actual norms of a population through formative research and informs the population of the actual norms through a message campaign. The final step, which is incredibly important, is determining the effectiveness of the messages through evaluative research. In addition to determining effectiveness, the results from the evaluative research can be used to craft new messages to revise the message campaign.
The social norms approach overall is not intended to alter individual behavior directly. Instead, the social norms approach is utilized to change the population’s misperceptions about the environment into accurate perceptions, thereby allowing changes to occur. For more information, please visit the glossary of important terms with regard to the social norms approach.