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Misperceptions about Norm Misperceptions: Descriptive, Injunctive, and Affective ‘Social Norming’ Efforts to Change Health Behaviors



We have known for a long time that people are often motivated to conform to the wishes of groups. Such peer influence can shape human behavior through the creation of social norms, and the frequency of some health behaviors (e.g., alcohol use) may depend on the perception of these norms. We discuss the influence of perceived social norms, especially normative misperceptions on health behaviors. We then describe social norms campaigns that are intended to reduce risky health behaviors by ‘debiasing’ perceptions of behavioral norms, and we point out practical problems and faulty theoretical assumptions of such interventions. A better alternative might be to develop interventions that debias misperceptions of injunctive norms or affective norms, although such alternatives have not yet been adequately tested. Still, we present the theoretical grounding for these different approaches and preliminary data suggesting that they could be successful in reducing risky health behaviors.