Assignment: Topic Of Persuasion

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Normative Social Influence is Underdetected

Jessica M. Nolan University of Arkansas

P. Wesley Schultz California State University, San Marcos

Robert B. Cialdini Arizona State University

Noah J. Goldstein University of Chicago

Vladas Griskevicius University of Minnesota

threat (Latané & Darley, 1970). In these situations, it seems clear that the direct personal experience of wit- nessing another person act can be influential in one’s own actions (Terry & Hogg, 2001; Turner, 1991).

More recent research has shown that direct observa- tion of others is not required for normative social influence to have its effect. Instead, communicating a descriptive norm—how most people behave in a given situation—via written information can induce confor- mity to the communicated behavior (Parks, Sanna, & Berel, 2001; Von Borgstede, Dahlstrand, & Biel, 1999).

Authors’ Note: Funding for this study was provided by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation (2001-7396) and by National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships provided to the fourth and fifth authors. Our appreciation goes to Kimberly Brown, Allen Risley, and Lori Large from the Social and Behavioral Research Institute and Azar Khazian for their help on Study 1. We also want to acknowledge the work of our field research team on Study 2: Veronica Briseno, Dulcinea Contreras, Matt Dorlaque, Reginald Hartfield, Edgar Medina, Laura Murphy, Leezel Nazareno, Rene Quiroz, Ronald Tilos, Monica Tinajero, and Christina Wade. Study 2 was conducted while the first author was at California State University, San Marcos, as part of her master’s thesis. Portions of this article were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Palm Springs, CA, 2006. Address correspondence to Jessica M. Nolan, Department of Psychology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701; e-mail:

PSPB, Vol. 34 No. 7, July 2008 913-923 DOI: 10.1177/0146167208316691 © 2008 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.

The present research investigated the persuasive impact and detectability of normative social influence. The first study surveyed 810 Californians about energy conserva- tion and found that descriptive normative beliefs were more predictive of behavior than were other relevant beliefs, even though respondents rated such norms as least important in their conservation decisions. Study 2, a field experiment, showed that normative social influ- ence produced the greatest change in behavior com- pared to information highlighting other reasons to conserve, even though respondents rated the normative information as least motivating. Results show that nor- mative messages can be a powerful lever of persuasion but that their influence is underdetected.

Keywords: social norms; social influence; pro-environmental behavior; social inference

Normative social influence is potent and widespread.The cumulative findings from the research on nor- mative social influence are clear—witnessing the actions of other people has a powerful effect on behavior (Asch, 1956; Berkowitz, 1972; Darley & Latané, 1970; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955; Milgram, Bickman, & Berkowitz, 1969; Sherif, 1936; for a review, see Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). It can lead people to say things they know to be untrue (Asch, 1956), to use illicit drugs (Maxwell, 2002), or to fail to respond to an imminent

For example, Schultz (1999) found that households that received normative information describing the amount recycled by an average neighborhood family increased both the amount and frequency of their subsequent curbside recycling behaviors. Similar results were found in a hotel setting where normative messages increased towel reuse by more than 28% (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, in press). The use of written normative information has also become common practice in attempts to reduce heavy drinking among college students (e.g., Haines & Spear, 1996; Perkins, 2003).

Detecting Social Influence

Having established the tenacity of normative social influence, researchers have now begun to question and speculate about the extent to which people are able to detect the influence of social norms on behavior (Cialdini, 2005; Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007). When choosing to engage in a given behavior (e.g., Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990) or reporting an opinion (Griskevicius, Goldstein, Mortensen, Cialdini, & Kenrick, 2006; Von Borgstede et al., 1999), do individuals recognize the real or imag- ined presence of others as a causal antecedent? Is con- formity to normative social influence the result of a conscious or nonconscious influence on behavior?

Nonconscious Influences on Behavior

In the past 25 years, substantial attention has been given to the study of nonconscious influences on behavior (Bargh, 2006). Much of this research has used subtle acti- vation, or “priming,” of a concept followed by subse- quent observation of the participant on a behavior related to that concept (e.g., Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996; Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007). This research has produced unexpected results, showing that subtle, imperceptible primes can produce strong and perceptible changes in behavior. In the realm of social norms and conformity, research has shown that activating the goal of going to the library, which is associated with the situational norm of being quiet, led participants to lower their voices (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2003). Similarly, participants who were primed with words related to conformity (e.g., adhere, agree, comply) were subsequently more likely to conform to the opinions of confederates who gave very favorable evaluations of a boring task (Epley & Gilovich, 1999). The observed behavior of other people may also be processed nonconsciously. For example, participants mimicked a confederate who was either rubbing their face or shaking their foot but were unaware that they had done so (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).

Influence is also considered nonconscious when the stimulus is perceived but is not evaluated as influential

(Bargh, 1992, 1999; Bowers, 1984; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). For example, a plethora of laboratory and field studies on the bystander effect has shown that the pres- ence of other people reduces the probability that any one person will offer help (for a review, see Latané & Nida, 1981). Although the bystander effect is well established in the social psychological literature and is known to have a reliable impact on behavior, during debriefing, individuals generally deny the impact of the presence of other people on their decision not to help (Latané & Darley, 1970). Similarly, in Sherif’s (1937) classic study on conformity during an ambiguous task, participants denied that their judgments of how much the light moved were influenced by the estimates given by other people in their group. These informal observa- tions suggest that even in situations where the partici- pant is likely to be aware of a causal stimulus, they may fail to identify this stimulus as the cause of their subse- quent behavior. Cialdini (2005) has argued that given the ubiquity and strength of normative social influence, it is surprising how little note people take of this potent form of influence when, as observers, they decide how to interpret the causes of their own actions.

Naive Psychology

People may have been unable to discern the influence that the presence of others had on their behavior because they had an existing cultural theory that pro- vided them with a plausible alternative explanation for their behavior (e.g., “I didn’t help because it’s better to mind your own business”). Thus, people’s naive expla- nations for their behavior may get in the way of detect- ing the true cause of behavior.

Naive psychology refers to the layperson’s conception of behavior and mental processes (Heider, 1958). Nisbett and Wilson (1977) referred to these naive explanations as a pri- ori, or implicit, causal theories. They concluded that verbal reports of behavior, more often, represented these culturally shared theories that could be generated equally well by an observer. For example, in reporting on how factors such as physical appearance and academic credentials influenced judgments of intelligence, flexibility, sympathy, and like- ability, actors’ estimates were highly inaccurate and no better than that of observers (Nisbett & Bellows, 1977).

Individuals suffer from an introspection illusion when judging the cause of their own behavior (Pronin, Molouki, & Berger, 2007). That is, individuals place greater weight on introspective thoughts and beliefs related to their decision to conform than to the behav- ioral evidence of their conformity. For example, if Jane is told that most students at her university support a change in the early decision policy, then she is more likely to support the change in policy herself, compared


to those who are told that most students do not support the change. However, when asked why she supports the change in policy, Jane is likely to cite personal thoughts and reasoning as the most influential cause for her support.


Although many studies have demonstrated the power of social norms, few studies have looked at whether par- ticipants are able to detect the influence of social norms on their own behavior. The present research is concerned with the contention that individuals sorely underesti- mate the extent to which their actions in a situation are determined by the similar actions of others. We examine this prediction in a domain that has received substantial public attention—the behavioral dimensions of climate change. For a variety of reasons (e.g., dwindling supplies of nonrenewable energy, concern for the welfare of future generations, and a general reverence for nature), numerous organizations have urged citizens toward a pro-environmental stance and away from environmen- tally damaging activities.

In the present research, our purpose was to investigate participants’ awareness of the causal relationship between descriptive social norms and their behavior. To do so, we conducted two studies. In Study 1 (a large- scale, stratified, telephone survey), we explored respon- dents’ stated reasons for engaging in energy conservation. Study 1 also provided an initial test of the actual factors influencing participants’ conservation behavior. In Study 2 (a field experiment), we extended existing research on normative social influence by assessing par- ticipants’ awareness of the extent to which different messages affected their behavior. Study 2 also provides a direct test of the accuracy of the causal explanations elicited from participants in Study 1.


The goal of this first study was to conduct a prelim- inary investigation into the extent to which people’s beliefs about what motivates them to conserve energy correspond to the factors that correlate with their self- reported intention to conserve. We wanted to know what a priori beliefs people held about why they con- serve energy and to examine the relative weight that participants would ascribe to social norms as a factor in their decisions to conserve energy at home. To address these questions, we surveyed a diverse sample of California residents regarding their energy conservation behaviors, motivations for conserving energy, and rele- vant normative and nonnormative beliefs.


Participants. The survey data reported here were part of a larger survey of energy conservation beliefs, moti- vations, and actions among Californians. Data in that larger survey were collected quarterly for a 3-year period. The data reported below are from random-digit-dialing interviews with 810 participants obtained between October 2003 and January 2004, when the addition of certain survey items allowed for a test of the hypotheses of the present study.

Materials. Survey items were designed to measure self-reported efforts to conserve energy, perceived rea- sons for conservation, beliefs about the broad benefits of energy conservation, descriptive normative beliefs regarding energy conservation, and demographics.

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