The cutting edge of social norms research

At the conference in London last week, more than a few people were curious about who is doing work on social norms and in what contexts. The simplest answer is that Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton professor of psychology and my coauthor on a piece about reducing gender-based violence, is working at the forefront of this research. Read pretty much anything by her if you want an idea of things that are going on.

Last year, a World Bank blog post declared social norms to be one of the most exciting areas of research for development, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly social norms are. In our work last week, we heard many wanting to conflate social norms with societal norms or cultural norms.

From the issues paper Laurie Ball Cooper and I presented in London (2012):

Norms are often defined as models or patterns, and societal norms are often defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in a given community (Geertz, 1973). By contrast, social norms are “individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical or desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball, 2010; Cialdini and Trost, 1998). This definition is derived from an extensive social psychological literature focusing on social norms as “socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave” (Paluck, 2007; Miller, Monin and Prentice, 2000). Social norms include both descriptive norms (perceptions about behaviors that are common in the community) and injunctive norms (perceptions about which behaviors are desirable in the community) (Prentice, 2008; Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren, 1990). Individual attitudes and beliefs can be distinguished from these community-oriented concepts of norms: attitudes are individuals’ “evaluative stance toward the self or something in the environment,” and beliefs include “understandings (thought of as factual) of the self or something in the environment” (Paluck and Ball, 2010).

Social norms research is starting to appear in more and more venues. A paper I mentioned briefly in this space examined the intersection between social norms and inheritance laws. This paper reflects how legal reform must take into account local context if it hopes to effect change. The inheritance reform had particularly significant effects because it interacted with the social norm that fathers provide for their sons in Ghana. And a recent World Bank working paper examines corruption through the lens of social norms.


Ball Cooper, Laurie, and Erin K Fletcher. “Reducing societal discrimination against adolescent girls: Using social norms as a tool for behavioral change.” DFID Adolescent Girls technical paper. October 2012. (Available December 2012, hopefully).

Cialdini, R. B., L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, D.W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P.L. Winter (2006). “Managing social norms for persuasive impact.” Journal of Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Miller, D. T., B. Monin, B., & D.A. Prentice (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. In D. J. Terry and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership. pp. 95- 113. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Laurie Ball (2010). “Social norms marketing aimed at gender based violence: A literature review and critical assessment.” New York: International Rescue Committee.

Paluck, E.L. (2007). “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict with the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda.” Yale University.

Prentice, Deborah A. (2008). “Mobilizing and Weakening Peer Influence as Mechanisms for Changing Behavior: Implications for Alcohol Intervention Programs.” In Prinstein, M.J., & Dodge, K.A. (Eds.). Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.


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