Review of Communication Research

HEALTH COMMUNICATION                                                                                                

Title & Authors

Social Norms: A Review

Adrienne Chung and Rajiv N. Rimal (The George Washington University, USA)


• Different from laws, which are codified, social norms are unwritten codes of conduct that are socially negotiated and understood through social interaction.

• Descriptive norms refer to people’s perceptions about the prevalence of a behavior in their social midst, while injunctive norms refer to people’s understanding about what others expect them to do in a social context.

• Social norms can be explicated at the individual level, which can be thought of as perceived norms, or at the societal level, which are referred to as collective norms.

• The focus theory of normative conduct highlights the critical role played by the salience of norms at the time of action, which mirrors findings from attitude accessibility research.

• The theory of normative social behavior posits that the influence of descriptive norms on behavior is moderated by a number of factors, including injunctive norms, outcome expectations, and group identity.

• We synthesize the research on the TPB, attitude accessibility, norm accessibility, dual-processing models of cognition, and the TNSB to offer a consolidated framework that predicts when and why norms will influence behavior.

• Future research should employ more qualitative designs to acquire richer data on how social norms evolve and influence individuals and communities.

• Future research should also focus on standardizing the operationalization of norms in order to achieve a more integrative, comprehensive understanding of their effect on behavior across different contexts.


Social norms, as a topic of inquiry, has garnered significant attention from a variety of perspectives in recent years. Because of the rapidly-growing interest in social norms from scholars in multiple disciplines, this area of scholarship is often characterized by a lack of clarity on what constitutes social norms and how key concepts are operationalized.  The objectives of this article are to (a) provide a review of the fast-expanding literature on social norms, (b) delineate similarities and differences in key operational definitions, (c) review theories that explicate how norms affect behaviors, (d) propose a revised theoretical framework that helps organize our understanding of normative influence on behavior and (e) provide suggestions for future research in this area. This review highlights the need to consider whether a behavior is enacted spontaneously or after deliberation.  If the former, whichever attitude or norm is most salient will likely have a direct effect on behavior.  If the latter, we propose that behavioral, individual, and contextual attributes will influence the extent to which norms shape behavioral intentions and subsequent behavior. Finally, this review highlights the need for more studies designed to test the causal relationship between social norms and behaviors, as well as those that study norms from a qualitative perspective.




    A Clarification of the Different Types of Norms

    Table 1. Distinctions among the Various Types of Norms


   Norm Accessibility vs. Attitude Accessibility

   The Prototype Willingness Model

   The Theory of Planned Behavior


   Moderators in the TNSB and beyond

   A Revised Framework

     Figure 1. A revised framework of normative influences

     Attributes of the individual

     Contextual attributes





open access verde 

Social Norms: A Review

Adrienne Chung and Rajiv N. Rimal


Keywords: Social norms; descriptive norms; injunctive norms; focus theory of normative conduct; theory of normative social behavior; health behavior; health interventions.

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How to cite

Chung, A., & Rimal, R. N. (2016). Social Norms: A Review. Review of Communication Research, 4, 1-28, doi:10.12840/issn.2255-4165.2016.04.01.008


social norms; descriptive norms; injunctive norms; focus theory of normative conduct; theory of normative social behavior; health behavior; health interventions.


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About the Authors

Adrienne H. Chung completed her post-doctoral fellowship at the George Washington University in health communication and disease prevention. Her work focuses on mechanisms by which media messages and public health interventions can influence behavioral intentions and attitudes about stigmatized health issues (e.g., mental health) and stigmatized populations (e.g., people living with HIV).  

Rajiv N. Rimal is Professor and Chair of the Department of Prevention and Community Health at the George Washington University. His work in health behavior change focuses on the role of social norms, risk perception and self-efficacy. Most of his current work is in AIDS prevention in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Corresponding Author:

Rajiv N. Rimal, Department of Prevention & Community Health, The George Washington University, 950 New Hampshire Ave, No. 300, Washington, DC 20052, USA

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