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Changing Injunctive Norms

In a new study that will be appearing in the November edition of the publication Addictive Behaviors, Mark Prince and Kate Carey explore the ability of normative feedback to change existing injunctive norms (Prince & Carey, 2010). Before talking about that study, let’s step back a bit and explain the difference between injunctive and descriptive norms. A descriptive norm is the degree of uniformity within a group for a certain behavior. For example, if most men wear hats, then the descriptive norm is for men to wear hats. An injunctive norm concerns the opinion or approval of a behavior held by group members. So if most men feel wearing a hat is good, then the injunctive norm is to approve of hat wearing.

There are some studies that have explored the difference between injunctive and descriptive norms within the college alcohol literature. Those that have (e.g., Larimer, Turner, Mallett, & Geisner, 2004) have indicated that there may be some gain to thinking of them separately. However, clearly the two are going to be related. It would be strange, for instance, for the perceived descriptive norm to favor a behavior, while the perceived injunctive norm objects to it. One presumably often infers the injunctive norm based upon the perceived descriptive norms.

What Prince and Carey have done in their relatively simple experiment is expose some students to computer-generated feedback that attempted to modify perceived injunctive norms; other students (the control) received no corrective feedback. Then both descriptive and injunctive norms regarding alcohol use were measured. As predicted, they found that the feedback produced a lowered injunctive norm perception for alcohol approval. Beyond that, correcting injunctive norms appeared to also affect perceived descriptive norms.

So this means interventions that seek to change misperceptions of normative beliefs through individualized normative feedback should consider including not just descriptive norms, but injunctive corrections as well. Since these norms are indeed changeable through such feedback, broadening the focus may yield changes in meaningful beliefs that could be regulating drinking behavior.

However, the caveat within the study is that the effect was found within general student norms, and not within beliefs about the subjects' friends. Since we know that closer peer relations have greater impact on actual behavior (Reed, Lange, Ketchie, & Clapp, 2007), the impact of this intervention may be limited unless it can become more personally relevant to the targeted student.


Larimer, M., Turner, A., Mallett, K., & Geisner, I. (2004). Predicting drinking behavior and alcohol-related problems among fraternity and sorority members: examining the role of descriptive and injunctive norms. Psychology of addictive behaviors: journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors., 18(3), 203-212.

Prince, M. A., & Carey, K. B. (2010). The malleability of injunctive norms among college students. Addictive Behaviors, 35(11), 940-947. doi:doi: DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2010.06.006

Reed, M. B., Lange, J. E., Ketchie, J. M., & Clapp, J. D. (2007). The relationship between social identity, normative information, and college student drinking. Social Influence, 2(4), 269. doi:10.1080/15534510701476617