June 21, 2021
Under Pressure: Harnessing Social Norms and Social Pressure for Persuasion

Social norms are rules about ways of thinking and behaving that are deemed socially acceptable by one’s society. They are really powerful. Social norms dictate much of our daily behavior, from how we line up to wait our turn to how we interact with others at a formal event. But they are also used to persuade folks in politics quite a bit, especially using a popular tactic called social pressure. Social pressure often appears on direct mail pieces that voters get in the mail, with a famous example being voter report cards that compare your voting behavior with that of your neighbors. There are different types of social pressure, but they all have the same basic intentions: to telegraph to voters that being a voter is socially preferred to not being a voter, and that anyone can find out if people belong to this socially desirable voter group because the fact that a person votes is public information.

Types of social pressure.

Hard Social Pressure.

Voter report cards incorporate what is called ‘hard social pressure.’ This pressure is often seen as somewhat negative and intrusive, and these tactics sometimes produce a small amount of backlash where voters actually do the opposite of what you’d like. Because of that, it is not advised that candidates themselves or even organizations that want to protect their reputations send these types of mailers (see how it went over for Ted Cruz in his 2016 bid for President).

Gentle Social Pressure.

Gentle social pressure is less explicit about a person’s specific voting history and speaks in more general terms, like the aggregate percentage of people who vote in a particular community. It also often tries to subtly convey that votes are being monitored without being explicit.

Positive Social Pressure.

Finally, positive social pressure is a very gentle type of social pressure in which people are generally thanked for their votes in past elections and told that the sender hopes to see that they also vote in an upcoming election.

Which works best?

While some researchers have found that hard social pressure is more effective than ‘gentle’ social pressure (e.g., Gerber, Green, & Larimer, 2008; Gerber, Green, & Larimer, 2010), others have found that gentle and positive social pressure approaches work just as well as hard social pressure (Mann, 2010; Panagopoulos, 2013; Panagopoulos, Larimer, & Condon, 2014).

Why does it work?

Descriptive and Injunctive Norms. Humans are social animals who yearn to belong to social groups (see DeWall & Bushman, 2011). And as social animals who want to find acceptance, humans are particularly motivated to adhere to social norms, and to give in to social pressure, so as to be good group members. People do enjoy standing out, but mostly to be seen in positive ways. So when it comes to our awareness that we are standing out in negative ways (like by not voting when voting is socially preferred), we usually act to correct that by conforming to the expected behavior or complying with the ask (Cialdini & Trost, 1998).

However, some norms are completely unspoken, and are only observed through other peoples’ behavior. These types of norms are called descriptive norms (Cialdini, 2007). They are norms that describe what other people are actually doing, and, at times, they are at odds with injunctive norms, which is what other people ought to be doing (Reno, Cialdini, and Kallgren, 1993). Descriptive norms are often clearly observable: a well trodden footpath through the grass, a bunch of cigarette butts littering the ground at the bus stop, a bill from the electric company showing your energy consumption compared to your neighbors. Injunctive norms are less observable, but often more well known. They are things like laws, social niceties, and common knowledge about socially accepted behavior, like standing in line at the grocery store. When it comes to voting, it is easy to craft messaging that both establishes the social desirability of voting and provides evidence that other people are showing up at the polls to harness the power of these norms.

Application to social pressure mail.

When we want to influence people’s behavior, we often call attention to both types of social norms in order to do so. That tells people that not only is there a ‘rule,’ but that the common response to the ‘rule’ is for people to follow it. It makes it clear that our community values the behavior of voting and the voter identity, and there may be social consequences for people who don’t conform.

Social pressure mail often describes the voting behavior of others to establish a descriptive norm, and references that voting is the socially preferred thing to do in some way, establishing an injunctive norm. Some research finds that using both types of norms can be helpful in lessening backlash to normative messaging, so this is likely a good approach, especially when using gentle or positive social pressure (Schultz et al., 2007).

Caveats.

Further, people are likely to follow the norms that are most salient to them at any given time, so pulling focus to the norms you would like people to follow can be extremely useful if you are trying to be persuasive (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990; Kallgren, Reno, & Cialdini, 2000). This can be especially useful when descriptive and injunctive norms are at odds, say voting is a valued behavior but it isn’t common in the target community. However, it is important to think about how you may be invoking descriptive norms when attempting to invoke injunctive ones. For instance, researchers in one study found that a sign drawing attention to the fact that people were stealing petrified wood from a national park when they shouldn’t be actually just increased theft, as it made it clear that many other people were stealing, setting a descriptive norm (Cialdini et al., 2006).

Additionally, the way the norm is framed may really matter for efficacy. Goldstein and colleagues found that people were more likely to increase environmentally conservative behavior at hotels when referencing the descriptive norms for the room the person was staying in, as opposed to other descriptive norms that, for instance, activated group identity (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). Finally, it’s important to note that social pressure can be incorporated into a variety of voter outreach tactics, like phonebanking or canvassing (as demonstrated in this 2018 GOTV recommendations video from Analyst Institute), but social pressure is less well studied in these contexts compared to direct mail.

Overall, messages that use different types of social pressure, or even regular old social norms, can be very useful political persuasion tactics precisely because they tap into core motivations we have as humans. Since we are motivated to be well liked socially, we are inherently motivated to not violate social norms and to come into compliance with norms we are currently violating. Social pressure mail uses this knowledge to great effect: by tapping into the motivations that make us human, it can help to make us voters.

References:

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of personality and social psychology, 58(6), 1015.

Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (p. 151–192). McGraw-Hill.

Cialdini, R. B., Demaine, L. J., Sagarin, B. J., Barrett, D. W., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. L. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Descriptive social norms as underappreciated sources of social control. Psychometrika, 72(2), 263-268.

DeWall, C. N., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). Social acceptance and rejection: The sweet and the bitter. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 256-260.

Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Larimer, C. W. (2008). Social pressure and voter turnout: Evidence from a large-scale field experiment. American Political Science Review, 33-48.

Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Larimer, C. W. (2010). An experiment testing the relative effectiveness of encouraging voter participation by inducing feelings of pride or shame. Political Behavior, 32(3), 409-422.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

Kallgren, C. A., Reno, R. R., & Cialdini, R. B. (2000). A focus theory of normative conduct: When norms do and do not affect behavior. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 26(8), 1002-1012.

Panagopoulos, C. (2013). Positive social pressure and prosocial motivation: Evidence from a large‐scale field experiment on voter mobilization. Political Psychology, 34(2), 265-275.