PSY322-Descriptive Norms

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Every culture has social norms to which people conform to. There are four types of social norms: perceived and collective norms, injunctive norms, and descriptive norms (Lapinski 2005). Injunctive norms are people’s perceptions of what behaviors are approved or disapproved by others (Aronson, 258). Descriptive norms are people’s perceptions of how people actually behave in given situations, regardless of whether the behavior is approved or disapproved by others (Aronson, 258). “Descriptive norms motivate behavior by informing people about what is effective or adaptive behavior (Aronson, 258),” meaning, that even when people know how a certain action should be done (an injunctive norm), they have a tendency to perform the opposite, in this case the action that is considered wrong (a descriptive norm) (Aronson 258) . Therefore, an injunctive norm is what people in a culture approve or disapprove of, while a descriptive norm is what people actually do. Descriptive norms are done by people’s observations of other people, “If people believe that a certain kind of behavior is strongly frowned upon by their social group, and they observe that others are obeying the norm, they are likely to follow the norm as well (Aronson 468).” A certain amount of research has been done on descriptive norms in order to find out how people actually behave in a situation based on descriptive norms.

Research studies show that injunctive norms work better than descriptive norms, but that descriptive norms only work in a situation where other people are willing to cooperate (Aronson, 258). Cooperation will be done if a person influences it upon another person; as a result, influence takes a big role in descriptive norms (Huntoon, 2006). There have been several research studies done on social norms, both on injunctive and descriptive norms. These studies show how influence takes a big role on people’s perception on certain actions (Gilbert, 2007). An example would be the influence of peers on others. “Peers are an important source of information and social influence for adolescents, and past research has documented that peer influence is a powerful predictor of adolescents’ involvement in risky behaviors, including drugs and alcohol use (Gilbert, 2007).” Influence takes a very important role in descriptive norms, for example in a research experiment conducted in 2009 by Grossbard.

Example - Research

A research study found on descriptive norms demonstrated how previous college athletes alcohol consumption changed new incoming college athletes perception on this behavior (Grossbard, 2009). The proposed hypothesis was that college athlete’s alcohol consumption is based on their descriptive norms, the student’s perception of how much alcohol consumption should be. The given hypothesis was “Perceived norms for weekly drinking, by the typical college student and typical college athlete will each be positively associated with the individual weekly alcohol consumption. Athletic identity will moderate associations between athlete-specific descriptive norms and weekly drinking, such that perception of athlete norms will have a stronger effect on drinking and consequences for both males and females reporting higher levels of athletic identity (Grossbard 2009).” High school and college student athletes have been identified as being at risk for engaging in problematic drinking patterns (Grossbard, 2009). Overestimation of peer drinking descriptive norms is associated with problematic drinking among college students and can contribute to the maintenance of a heavy drinking pattern (Grossbard, 2009). Research also shows that students tend to follow the behavior in their group, but if the group is closer to the student the influence is more powerful: “Thus, individuals who more strongly identify with certain social networks are more likely to determine drinking patterns similar to those groups (Grossbard, 2009).”

The sample size was of 1,119 freshmen from two large campuses. Participants were included in the experiment if they reported any alcohol consumption in their lifetime (Grossbard, 2009), if they reported some high school athletics, and if they planned on enrolling in at least one year of college athletics (Grossbard, 2009).

The results of this research showed that the perceived number of drinks of a typical college student was higher than the actual number reported by the student (Grossbard, 2009). Leading to the conclusion that the normative perception of weekly drinking, by both the typical college students and the typical college athletes, were significantly greater than students’ own self-reported drinking (Grossbard, 2009).

This article is important because it illustrates why college athletes have a tendency to drink larger consumptions of alcohol than those non athlete college students. This article makes the reader think about the alcohol consumption of others or their own. It also allows the reader to come up with a solution to this problem, and to change their descriptive norm about alcohol consumption in college.

Example - Real-life

A real life example on a descriptive norm would be similar to the research done by Grossbard, in 2009, on college athlete drinkers and their descriptive norm on drinking. This real life example deals with the use of marijuana among adolescents in high school, and its descriptive norm of it. This example demonstrates the same results as the Grossbard study on college drinkers, most students think other peers consume more alcohol than they do. This research is different because it deals with marijuana use and its misperceptions. The result of this example is that it indicates adolescent’s misperception of both types of norms: descriptive norms and injunctive norms.

This real life example relates to descriptive norms because it is based on the misperception of students marijuana use. During the high school years, a large number of marijuana users report that their friends and peers use and approved marijuana more than they do (Gilbert 2007). This conclusion was gathered from information in a research conducted in 2007. The point of this research conducted was to find a solution to fix this problem of the false descriptive norm among high school adolescents. The study suggest that there is a need for drug prevention programs to correct the descriptive norm on its use, and that efforts should begin with the adolescent population (Gilbert 2007).

In this real life example, and in the research conducted by Grossbard in 2009, there’s a demonstration of how influence is a big component on the descriptive norms of many behaviors. The attitudes involving these behaviors tend to be similar to each other, in that the people involved misperceive other people’s actions involving a behavior when it comes to measuring it with their own behavior.


Aronson, Wilson, & Akert (2007). Social Psychology (6th edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, NJ.

Gilbert, Cindy Kay, (2007). The Misperception of Injunctive and Descriptive marijuana norms among adolescents. Dissertation Abstracts International, 63(1-B), 669. 0419-4217

Grossbard, Joel R. Geisner, Irene M., (2009). Athletic Identity, descriptive norms, and drinking among athletes transitioning to college. Addictive Behaviors, 34(4), 352-359. 0306-4603

Huntoon, Alishia. (2006). Norms, Personality traits, values, and gender: the use of Injunctive and Descriptive norms in a public goods dilemma. Dissertation Abstracts International, 67 (2-B), 1206. 0419-4217

Lapinski, Maria Knight. (2005). An Explication of Social Norms. Communication Theory, 15 (2), 127-1471050-3293

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