Cognitive Bias and Social Norms – An Overview

Social exchange theory example
I’ve started to think about social norms a lot recently. They come up again and again. So this article looks at how social norms and cognitive bias can be used to influence behaviour for social good.


Social norms are the hidden values that explain our behaviour. We learn these as children from our parents and peers. As adults we pick these up in the workplace, family relations and groups we’re involved in. They are a bit like rituals. For example, the British love of queues. In essence, they guide our behaviour.
Social marketers like to analyse social norms. They give us a gauge to measure behaviour change. Either to promote a positive behaviour or support people towards change. It’s like saying, ‘hey, most people think like this, and actually, by doing so, you’ll be better for it’. I spoke recently about the RNLI ‘Respect the Water’ campaign. They used social norms to address risk-taking, particularly in men. This led to the creation of safety guides as a way to prevent accidental death.
In all this digging, I discovered something very interesting. Something I didn’t expect to find. There’s the opposite of a norm, they call it cognitive bias. It’s when people deviate from rational judgement and come to illogical conclusions. In some instances it works to that person’s advantage, let’s say when you need to make a fast decision. But overall, I would say the impact is negative. It’s even worse when that person has influence over a group.
I bet by understanding cognitive bias can help create positive behaviour change. So here’s a short rundown of what I’ve looked at so far:


That the first piece of information a person hears becomes the answer.
Cognitive bias psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky described this as a mental shortcut. It simplifies a complex problem. Even if there might be a better option the person is blind to it. And so the original idea keeps appearing as the best solution.
Why it’s useful:
In my latest post for World Water Day I use anchoring bias to present a range of sanitation options, not just one. This a controlled variable. It gives the audience an idea of relative cost. Without it, the cheapest option might still be seen to be too expensive.


The belief that people are taking more notice than they actually are.
We’re all at the centre of our own world, and so it’s natural to assume that everyone else is taking notice too. But in fact, they are only interested in their own worlds.
Why it’s useful:
We can use peer comparison to nudge people towards the desired behaviour. Let’s say we want to change the way men act towards women on a night out. Creating an element of judgement by using cognitive bias can discourage undesired behaviours like grabbing.


When people do something because other people are also doing it.
There’s a required level of conformity needed for society to work. It would be chaos otherwise. Like in those Western movies, people come together in times of uncertainty. Unfortunately, the leader isn’t always the best person to guide the group. And so problems occur.
Why it’s useful:
If people begin to follow a group that are making false claims, then social proof is the solution. Breaking the cycle by presenting facts, spoken from a credible source.


This is a mental shortcut that uses the immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a topic
When making a decision, related events or situations can spring to the front of your mind. This is great if you need a quick solution to a problem, but it blocks the bigger picture. 
Why it’s useful:
If you asked someone to conserve energy, how would they react? I would image they would make a concerted effort. But does that mean they made the best choice? Humans often pick a solution that is readily available to their short term memory. One example would be turning lights off, as opposed to changing the bulbs to LED. Both are effective, but the LED option requires no further intervention.
So presenting the desired behaviour clearly can have the maximum impact.


When people find anything but the current situation a big risk.
This is when it feels safer to continue what you’re doing, instead of making a change.
Why it’s useful:
People find comfort in staying as they are. This is understandable as many people are risk averse. They fear change. We can use exchange theory presenting the benefits of change and reduce worry.

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