Social Norm-alizing Health Behaviors

A doodle balancing upside-down on a cat says, “Hey face! Nice barrel!” to a doodle wearing a barrel. The barrel-wearing doodle replies, “I’m a barrel of laughs!” A third doodle yells, “Chiiiiicken nuggetssss!!!”

Have you ever wondered why you say hello when you’re introduced to someone or put on clothes before you leave the house? It’s not because you have to, dear readers. It’s because it’s the norm — the social norm, that is.

Social norms are a set of unspoken rules for acceptable behavior in a group or society. Behavior that’s outside of social norms may seem rude or offensive — or, at the very least, odd.

Think about the last time you ate at a restaurant. Did you:

  • Chew with your mouth open
  • Eat soup with a fork
  • Yell “Potty time!” when you got up to use the restroom
  • Sit down at a table full of strangers and sample their desserts

If you answered “no” to all of these questions, congratulations! You’re clearly an expert on social norms.

Social norms are everywhere — and they can be especially useful in the realm of public health. Studies have shown that social norms can influence health behaviors like eating habits and physical activity. Or take teen vaping: teens who think it’s normal for their peers to vape are more likely to start doing it themselves.

These unspoken rules can help us understand, predict, and influence health behaviors. For example, this message works to challenge misconceptions and establish a healthier social norm: Everyone is not doing it — about 4 out of 5 high school students aren’t vaping!

As health communicators, we can use the power of social norms to encourage healthy behavior change. So give it a try! (After all, everyone’s doing it.)

The bottom line: Harness the power of social norms to promote healthy behaviors.

Tweet about it: Social norms can go a long way toward influencing health behaviors. @CommunicateHlth explains how we can harness these positive peer-pressure powerhouses in our #HealthLit materials:


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