Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

You don’t want to be even worse than the average, do you?!

My blog post contains a persuasive message sent by our own University of Warwick. It looks like one of the numerous occasions when public awareness and effort towards solving big problems are tried to be raised. Some might say, the actual reason behind it is that bills are included in student accommodation rent prices and the university yet again tries to make a cut on the expenses, but this blog post is not about that. What made it interesting was the bit on the top right corner, saying “A typical Warwick Student uses 30% more water than the UK average”. This somehow makes one stop and think, “maybe I just don’t put enough effort into it?”

The persuasive technique used here is called a normative message which leads to conformity. The consensus tells us what do others from the population do, and what the majority does is perceived as to what is the right thing to do. After developing this idea in the mind, one perceives it as the social norm. Breaking the perceived social norm is an undesired action, so in order not to draw negative attention one conforms to the perceived social norm(s), irrespective of whether they agree with the norm or not. We tend to do what is socially acceptable and what is the popular/prevalent thing among others to do. And the best effect through this is acquired when it is both socially acceptable and the popular thing to do rather than there being a conflict between the two.

Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren (2003) looked at the effects of a differently given normative message portraying the same situation in either negative or positive ways. Participants were given an opportunity to litter. There were two conditions for each situation – a confederate walks by or a confederate drops trash on the ground in either a clean environment or environment filled with litter. One confederate does not stand for the popular thing to do but helps to attract attention to the social norm of the whole population – littering being acceptable or not (depending on the environment in which the participant was). The results (seen in Figure 1) showed that as expected, participants were least likely to litter in a clean environment where the confederate dropping trash on the ground seemed like the odd one out. Most participants littered in a littered environment after the confederate dropped trash on the ground.

This research suggests that it is very important to pay attention to how the normative message is formed and executed as the efficacy of the results can differ greatly according to that. In our poster, the social norm portrayed is the average national water consumption, being 30 per cent less to that of a typical Warwick student, which makes it feel like we are the odd one out.


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, 1015–1026.

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