Descriptive Social Norms as Underappreciated Sources of Social Control

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

Böckenholt and van der Heijden's results regarding compliance with insurance regulations--that the enforcement activities of a regulatory agency were relatively unpredictive of compliance--are consistent with findings from other domains (e.g., tax adherence), where personal factors and informal social controls have been shown to play a more significant role. However, the specific form of informal social control investigated in Böckenholt and van der Heijden's study (the perceived approval/disapproval of friends and family) is not the only kind of informal social control that has proven effective in spurring compliance. Descriptive social norms, which involve perceptions not of what others approve but of what others actually do, also influence compliance decisions powerfully. Yet, the role of descriptive social norms in rule adherence is often underappreciated by governed and governors alike. The consequences of this relative lack of recognition are discussed within the arena of compliance with pro-environmental regulations and requests.

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