We’re wrong about the norm – and it matters

While Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax campaign may not have had the start he wanted, having been rejected by the Prime Minister, it has served to highlight a worrying trend in British eating habits. About half of the population eat over the recommended daily amount of sugar.1National Diet and Nutrition Survey: results from Years 1 to 4 (May 2014) To compound this, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), levels of inactivity in England hover at the top of the international scale. Unfortunately the poor dietary habits and lack of exercise that our colleague Alma Berliner saw (see page 52) are not only to be found in Teesside – a large portion of the country are sitting and eating themselves into diabetes, heart disease and potentially an early grave, at massive cost to a health service that is already creaking.

Faced with this huge challenge, one option for PHE and other public health bodies is to ’nudge’ the reluctant masses towards healthier behaviour. Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign arguably fell as flat as the model’s stomach among some groups – but, as Alma illustrates, it is an excellent example of how important our perceptions of the norm can be to our attitudes and behaviour. Social norm theory suggests we can harness perception to shift behaviour.

Our perceptions of the norm suggest we never quite move on from that awkward phase of wanting to fit in. Like worker ants, our behaviour tends to fall in line with what we think others do (what social psychologists call ’descriptive norms’) and what we think they approve of (or ’injunctive norms’).

Social norms matter. They can work at a community-wide level, across the country and even internationally. Our new study conducted for the Behavioural Exchange conference in London this autumn2The BX Conference, hosted by the Behavioural Insights Team, took place in September 2015 shows that, consistently across six different countries, over-indulging on sugar and being physically inactive are seen as ‘normal’. In the UK, for example, we think seven in ten people eat more sugar than the recommended daily limit – when it’s ‘only’ 47% – and that only 42% of us do the recommended amount of physical activity per week, when it’s actually 57%.


So our behaviour is bad, but not as bad as we think. But due to the power of social norms, that misperception could actually encourage the negative behaviours. There is a real risk that well-meaning communications on the scale of the issue could actually reinforce the very behaviours we’re trying to shift.

American psychologist Robert Cialdini has long warned about the dangers of inadvertently normalising negative behaviours in this way. It’s a really tough line to tread: campaigners want to raise attention and get a number of different audiences focused on the issue. But the problem is that by highlighting that the negative behaviour is commonplace, you also imply that everyone is doing it.

Cialdini argues that in order to unleash the power of the norms you need to be paying attention to both the descriptive norm (show that the positive behaviour is widespread) and the injunctive norm (show that other people approve of it).

Successful campaigns should therefore focus on the desirable aspects of a given behaviour. This is partly why Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has garnered such positive attention – at its heart is the aim of normalising and positively displaying a behaviour that people (wrongly) think is a minority pursuit.

But there are further challenges – norms work differently for different issues. Our survey suggests a splintering of opinion when looking at sugar consumption compared with physical activity. We distance ourselves from our sugar-guzzling neighbours – less than half of us admit to eating too much sugar yet we have no problem saying we’re as inactive as everyone else.

One possible explanation of the difference here could be shame. The British public seem to be more ashamed about their sugar consumption than their lack of exercise. What this means is that these campaigns may also need different tacks for different types of unhealthy behaviour, depending on the level of shame associated with them.

Of course norms are one of many tools we could use to shift these types of health behaviours. For example, we know that ‘availability’ is a massive driver of what we eat: make your fruit bowl easy to reach and attractive, and hide your sweets in a dark inaccessible cupboard!3http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/chinese-buffets.html But the power of norms is real and significant – they carry weight. And used correctly, they could help the British public lose some of theirs.

Our new Behavioural Sciences Group will be exploring this more in 2016.

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