Your beliefs don’t always predict your behavior

While it’s true that your beliefs may spur action when you’re particularly passionate about something (if you believe that Coke is superior to Pepsi, you’ll choose Coke over Pepsi until you die), it may come as a surprise that you’re actually not as influenced by your beliefs as you think (for example, if you believe ice cream is not great for you, but eat it anyway).

Oftentimes, your beliefs are not very strong and don’t translate into behavior. Preferences can be elicited in the moment, influenced by extraneous factors (even the mere presence of a number) that are completely unrelated to the thing at hand. If such arbitrary things can sway your decisions, just imagine the influence that much more relevant factors could have on you.

Social norms guide your behavior

Types of Norms (a cheat sheet)

  • Personal Norms: your own internal standards of conduct.  Ex. “I recycle”
  • Social Norms: perceived standards of group behavior
    • Descriptive: what most other people like me are doing. Ex. “My peers recycle”
    • Injunctive: what most other people like me find desirable Ex. “My peers think it’s good to recycle”

Other people are one of the strongest influences over your behavior. But how do they influence you? Two ways, basically: What they do, and what they approve of — even merely what we think they do, and what we think they approve of.

As inherently social creatures, humans constantly seek affirmation from their peers. Social norms are the informal, often-unstated rules that govern what is considered normal in a society. Social norms (see our cheat sheet to the right) determine what sorts of behavior you think is acceptable among your peers, and therefore what is acceptable to you.

What Others Do

We all want to fit in, so we take cues from others to make sure we’re doing the socially acceptable thing.

First, let’s consider the norms surrounding the behavior of other people like you do. (Pro tip: these are called descriptive norms). When others behave in one way, that behavior is more desirable. We all want to fit in, so we take cues from others to make sure we’re doing the socially acceptable thing. Imagine, for example, that all the people you admire are recyclers. You’re probably going to be a recycler too. And if you ever throw a plastic bottle into the trash, you’re going to be pretty discrete about it.

When social norms help, and when they can backfire

Any discussion of social norms would be incomplete without a mention of the father of social norms: Robert Cialdini. One important study from Cialdini and colleagues (Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein & Griscevicius, 2007) looked at when social norms help, and when they backfire — and how to mitigate the backfire effect. The norms that reflect what others do serve as a reference point to judge your own behavior against; so they are helpful and motivating when you’re doing less well than others, but backfire if you’re better than average (your behavior relaxes instead of continuing on as the superstar you are). If you are below average on saving energy, for example, then knowing this will motivate you to save more. On the other hand, if you are above average on saving energy, this same information will lead you to decrease your saving efforts.

What others believe

To solve this backfire problem, the researchers decided to harness a different kind of social norm to communicate what others find desirable rather than what others are doing. If descriptive norms are what everyone else is doing, injunctive norms are what everyone else believes. The researchers found that when they incorporated a simple smiley face to communicate approval of energy efficiency, the backfire effect went away — an effect that persisted a month after the intervention. So if you were in the study and if your energy use was more efficient than average and you saw a smiley face of approval along with this information, you were now likely to continue saving and maintain your superstar status.

What other people believe is an important predictor of behavior.

Julie O’Brien, Principal of Better Living and Health at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University and previously a behavioral research manager at Opower (which was acquired by Oracle in 2016 and founded on the heels of social norms research) recently published findings from her time at Opower. In the article, authors Jachimowicz, Hauser, O’Brien, Sherman and Galinsky (2018) look at perceptions of others’ beliefs in the context of saving energy. O’Brien says of her work, “Our research shows that beliefs about what other people believe are an important predictor of behavior in response to social norm information. If I believe that my neighbors care about saving energy for the environment, and I see that I’m not performing well compared to my neighbors, then I’m likely to be responsive to the social norm feedback by changing my behavior. But if I don’t believe that my neighbors care about saving energy for the environment and I find out I’m not performing well compared to my neighbors, the social norm information has less of an effect on my behavior. Social norms don’t influence people uniformly.” As with all things in behavioral science, perception matters — two different interpretations of the same information can lead to very different behaviors.

Social norms in Pattern Health

The positive beliefs and behaviors of other patients are highlighted as a motivational tool in Pattern Health to help patients realize just how popular some health behaviors are. We can share the optimistic beliefs of other patients, or fun facts about what other patients are doing when that behavior is both popular and desirable. (We do not, of course, highlight behavior that is unpopular and desirable, as that would send the message that no one does the desirable behavior and therefore you don’t need to, nor do we highlight popular and undesirable behavior as that would send the message that everyone does the undesirable behavior and give permission to join them).

Imagine that as a patient you were informed that the majority of other patients like you regularly walk for exercise (as demonstrated in the Pattern app to the right). This information is likely to make you want to start walking if you aren’t already, or help you feel affirmed if you already are.

This sort of social norm information can be shared in other ways as well, including through social media where patients can find the approval of their peers. These same peers can provide varying levels of support, from simply signaling that healthy behaviors are the norm to providing accountability when patients need an extra dose of encouragement.

The persistence of social norms

Social norm interventions lead to long-term results.

The best thing going for social norms is that (unlike some short-term incentives or nudges), social norm interventions can lead to more long-term results. And it makes sense that social norms lead to longer-term change. To have a sustainable impact, technologies and behavior change interventions need to integrate with the permanent societal structures of our everyday lives. Technologies come and go, but the role of social networks  — in person and online — is here to stay. While the form of human relationships may change over time, other people will always be an integral component of our lives. And because of this, we should incorporate these systems in behavior change efforts, particularly when behaviors are as complex as those related to health.



  1. Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429-434.

  2. Jachimowicz, J. M., Hauser, O. P., O’Brien, J. D., Sherman, E., & Galinsky, A. D. (2018). The critical role of second-order normative beliefs in predicting energy conservation. Nature Human Behaviour, 2, 757–764.

Written by: Aline Holzwarth