Our research examines under what circumstances social norms are more versus less effective in shaping consumer behavior. We find particularly strong effects of the interaction between societal approval or disapproval of the behavior and environmental factors. For instance, while the effect of social norms on approved behavior is stable across time and cultures, their effect on disapproved behavior has grown and is stronger in most developing countries.
We also found that content of the communication should feature descriptive rather than injunctive forms of social norms, i.e., describe what (most) people actually do rather than what they should do. It is also recommended that marketers should avoid specifying explicit sanctions and rewards associated with social norms. Instead, strategies that highlight benefits to others may mitigate reactance and thus be more effective for inducing the target behavior. The results also suggest that the influence of social norms can prompt private acceptance. Thus, enabling marketers and policymakers to leverage social norms to encourage both private and public behaviors.
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Melnyk, Vladimir, Francois A. Carrillat, Valentyna Melnyk (2021), “The Influence of Social Norms on Consumer Behavior: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Marketing.
Social norms shape consumer behavior. However, it is not clear under what circumstances social norms are more versus less effective in doing so. This gap is addressed through an interdisciplinary meta-analysis examining the impact of social norms on consumer behavior across a wide array of contexts involving the purchase, consumption, use, and disposal of products and services, including socially approved (e.g., fruit consumption, donations) and disapproved (e.g., smoking, gambling) behaviors. Drawing from reactance theory and based on a cross-disciplinary data set of 250 effect sizes from research spanning 1978–2019 representing 112,478 respondents from 22 countries, the effects of five categories of moderators of the effectiveness of social norms on consumer behavior are examined: (1) target behavior characteristics, (2) communication factors, (3) consumer costs, (4) environmental factors, and (5) methodological characteristics. The findings suggest that while the effect of social norms on approved behavior is stable across time and cultures, their effect on disapproved behavior has grown over time and is stronger in survival and traditional cultures. Communications identifying specific organizations or close group members enhance compliance with social norms, as does the presence of monetary costs. The authors leverage their findings to offer managerial implications and a future research agenda for the field.
Special thanks to Holly Howe (Ph.D. candidate at Duke University) and Demi Oba (Ph.D. candidate at Duke University), for their support in working with authors on submissions to this program.
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