Negative Descriptive Social Norms and Political Action: People Aren’t Acting, So You Should

Hans Hassell And Emily Wyler

You get an email in your inbox: “No one is doing anything about this issue: we need you.” It’s a seemingly desperate call-to-action, a last-ditch plea to join a cause. But do you feel inclined to pitch in, to help out where it seems your fellow citizens don’t bother?

As social animals, we seek normative information when trying to understand how to direct our energies and act in socially-acceptable ways. Political calls-to-action often take advantage of this predilection, to motivate people to act based on a description of what others are doing… or not doing.

It’s that latter flavor of social normative information–the framing that indicates what others are not doing–that we were curious about. Political campaigns and activist organizations sometimes request action from a message recipient by describing the undesirable action (or inaction) of a group and pushing the individual to deviate from that norm by joining the cause. This type of normative framing is contentious, however; previous social behavior research on eliciting political behaviors claims it is an ineffective tactic. The argument is that the only way to truly inspire action is to formulate messaging that highlights a highly popular, successful campaign that could benefit from you joining the herd!

In our article, we challenge the literature’s dismissal of negative descriptive social norms in favor of positive descriptive norms. In fact, mediating factors such as the context, audience, and the underlying motivations to participate may be more important to consider when deciding how to frame call-to-actions in the political sphere.

With an online survey and a separate field experiment, we presented individuals with group-level messaging about community issues that either highlighted a positive descriptive social norm (“lots of people are working on this”) or a negative descriptive social norm (“no one’s doing anything about this”). We saw that those that received the negative descriptive norm messaging were more likely to indicate willingness to sign a petition or write to a policymaker in response to these call-to-action pleas. Respondents also reported higher feelings of anger after reading about what others were failing to do for an issue—and this difference was most notable among those not already active in the political sphere. Someone that has a lower propensity to engage in political activity—perhaps a non-activist—may feel more anger when introduced to the unfamiliar idea that others just don’t care about certain issues, which improves the saliency of the call-to-action in their mind and instigates action.

While behaviors measured by similar research, such as voting, hold a more intrinsic level of incentive, the actions requested in these message campaigns are not as self-serving.  Using negative descriptive social norms may be helpful when trying to drive purposive behaviors, which indicate more of an ability on the part of the individual to influence change for the “greater good” of the community.

In an age that may seem to foster a culture of apathy and disengagement, finding ways to inspire increased levels of participation of individuals in the political process and policy outcome arena is undoubtedly invaluable. Refraining from writing off the potential efficacy of negative social descriptive norms opens doors to a more diverse toolbox that can be accessed by leaders and advocates in efforts to motivate action. Our messaging may need to humbly highlight the failures of the group, rather than just the successes, in order to inspire anger about inaction and drive those that may not be as aware of their own efficacy in creating change, into deviating from the norm and taking action.



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