The subjective norm is one of three key factors that are said to predict peoples behaviors within the theory of planned behavior (the other two are: personal attitudes and perceived behavioral control).
Subjective norm is a social psychological concept that refers to the perceived social pressure to engage or not engage in a particular behavior.
For instance, if a student decides not to cheat on an exam because they believe that their classmates will disapprove of their cheating (and may even shun them for it!), then we might consider them to have been influenced by the subjective norms of their peers.
The belief that their peers would disapprove of cheating has led the student to adhere to ethical and moral standards (rather than, perhaps, their own intrinsic belief system).
Subjective norms can come from a range of different sources, with some influential ones being friends’ opinions, your family values, the cultural beliefs you were raised with, and the influence of media.
Regardless of their origins, subjective norms play a crucial role in shaping our attitudes and behavior, and (according to the theory of planned behavior) they can help predict people’s future behaviors.
Definition of Subjective Norm
A subjective norm is a construct within social psychology that refers to an individual’s perceived social pressure or expectation to engage in a particular behavior. It is, essentially, our perception of normative social influence.
It reflects the extent to which an individual thinks other people who are important to them want them to perform the behavior in question and how motivated they feel to comply with this perceived social pressure (Asare, 2015).
As mentioned by Fattahi Ardakani and his colleagues (2020),
“…subjective norms refer to the personal perception of the social pressures which are imposed to adopt a specific behavior” (p. 1522).
Similarly, Peters and Templin (2010) state that:
“…subjective norm is influenced by a person’s normative beliefs combined with the person’s motivation to comply” (p. 174).
Accordingly, subjective norms consist of two key components: the individual’s perception of what others expect of them and their motivation to conform to these expectations.
Neuroimaging studies have also found that perceptions of subjective norms activate brain regions associated with social identity and reward systems, suggesting that adherence to group norms draws on deep-rooted neural mechanisms (Zinchenko & Arsalidou, 2017).
Therefore, subjective norm operates as an important force in shaping human behavior through both psychological and neurological mechanisms.
Subjective Norm in the Theory of Planned Behavior
The term subjective norm comes from the theory of planned behavior, which proposes three key factors in predicting human behavior. The other two are: personal attitudes, and perceived behavioral control (Peters and Templin, 2010).
The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) was developed by Icek Ajzen in the late 1980s (Bosnjak et al., 2020). It aims to explain how our beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control work together to shape a person’s behavior.
The theory proposes that our actions are not solely determined by our attitudes or aims but also influenced by the perceptions of what others think of us in addition to our ability to control those intentions (Peters & Templin, 2020).
According to TPB, human behavior is guided by three factors:
- Personal attitudes – If we want to predict a person’s future behaviors, we need to look at their personal attitudes. For example, if a person has a positive attitude toward exercising, then they’re more likely to go to the gym.
- Subjective norms – If we want to predict a person’s future behavior, we need to look at the social and cultural norms they adhere to. For example, if someone’s culture glorifies and celebrates soccer, then the person may be more likely to play soccer.
- Perceived behavioral control – If we want to predict a person’s future behavior, we need to look at how much they believe they can control their own behavior and whether they can achieve change through effort (see also: locus of control theory).
These factors create a decision-making model where each factor influences an individual’s intention for specific behavior that consequently leads them into action.
Consider a scenario where someone desires to add more plant-based meals to their diet for better health benefits. However, due to low cooking skills, they may feel insufficiently capable of making this change happen.
When faced with external pressures, such as following other people’s choices at meal platters, they may give up on their intentions, ultimately prioritizing the preferences of others over their own goals.
TPB provides valuable insights into both personal motivations and external influences on individuals’ behaviors while being useful for developing interventions promoting behavior change.
Types of Subjective Norms (Injunctive vs. Descriptive)
Injunctive norms and descriptive norms are two types of subjective norms that describe how people behave in social situations. The main difference between the two is the kind of information they provide about what people should do.
Let’s have a closer look:
1. Injunctive Norms
Injunctive norms refer to what others deem acceptable or desirable in a particular situation; these norms dictate what ought or ought not to be done (Wong, 2019).
They represent an individual’s perceptions of others’ beliefs about what one should do under specific circumstances.
For example, if someone asks you to turn off your phone during a movie screening, you are likely being influenced by injunctive norms—because it is deemed unacceptable to have and use mobile phones there.
2. Descriptive Norms
Descriptive norms describe how people typically act or think in specific contexts based on empirical evidence.
Descriptive norms are valuable for predicting behavior patterns because they reflect real-life observations instead of a general public acceptance guideline (Wong, 2019).
For instance, witnessing other children taking toys can lead children to believe this behavior is normal. Therefore, descriptive norms may have positive or negative implications depending on the behavior such modeling reinforces.
So, injunctive influences describe expectations into a given set of scenarios, often through regulatory frameworks like laws and formal procedures.
In contrast, descriptive models create patterns of compliance that regulate social cues outside formal rules. They modulate individuals’ conformity with group norms, shaping behavior through non-formalized methods.
Examples of Subjective Norms
- Eating Habits: A person may feel pressure from their friends who have different eating habits, and this might motivate them to alter their diet.
- Fitness Goals: If an individual is surrounded by friends who attend fitness classes regularly, they may feel encouraged to exercise more often.
- Environmental Practices: People often adopt environmentally friendly practices like recycling or reducing plastic use because they perceive it as a societal expectation.
- Neatness and Cleanliness: An employee may dress up properly at work, keep their workspace clean, and act professionally because they believe that their co-workers would approve of such behaviors.
- Politics and Social Justice Issues: People may take part in social justice campaigns or support political causes if they know that others around them are similarly involved or would approve of such actions.
- Religious Customs: Individuals are more likely to follow religious traditions like fasting if there is a social expectation to do so within their community.
- Professional Etiquettes: Employees may dress up properly at work, act politely with customers and colleagues, and use formal language while communicating on professional media platforms because social expectations dictate to follow these codes of conduct
- Academic Honesty: Students tend not to cheat at university when social norms suggest it is unacceptable behavior among peers and teachers alike.
Significance of the Study of Subjective Norms
Subjective norms are important for understanding human behavior because they reflect the social pressures, influences, and expectations that affect behavior.
Here are some reasons why subjective norms are significant:
1. Social Influence
Subjective norms are a reflection of the collective believes of the people around you, which will subtly guide individuals’ behaviors (see: social influence theory).
Adapting one’s behavior to meet the expectations of those around them is common among individuals. This means that the group dynamics of your peers has a huge influence on the acceptable norms that you’ll likely adhere to.
Consequently, exploring the normative beliefs upheld by certain communities can help shed light on human action, what’s in and outside of the overton window of acceptability, and provide us with insights worth considering.
2. Predicting Behavior
As social creatures, people are constantly looking for cues from those around us about how they should behave in different situations.
But what happens when those cues become so strong that they start shaping our actions without us even realizing it?
That’s the power of subjective norms – the belief that others expect us to act in certain ways can deeply influence our attitudes and intentions towards specific behaviors.
By studying these perceptions, researchers can gain insight into who is more likely to engage in various activities under similar circumstances.
3. Changing Behavior
Subjective norms can help design interventions to modify health behaviors such as medication compliance, fitness programs, etc.
This can be achieved by identifying the influencers of an individual’s behavior changes within their community.
Developing strategies that positively encourage expected behavior based on subjective normative beliefs helps facilitate better progress.
Our group memberships shape our sense of personal identity, informing our perception of those ‘norms’ associated with such groups.
Being part of any social circle or subgroup understood through subjective norms can lead to better interaction, an increased sense of belonging, and a shared purpose with others sharing similar objectives.
However, it may also have some serious drawbacks such as groupthink, which refers to instances where your opinions are shaped by the group rather than your own morality (see also: deindividuation, where people lose their individually and simply follow the group norm).
Understanding the concept of subjective norms is crucial in shaping human behavior. This construct represents an individual’s perception and expectation of social pressures or influences from others toward particular behavior in a given context.
The subjective norm is essential in predicting, explaining, and changing behavior patterns.
Furthermore, subjective norms also contribute to social identity formation by creating a sense of belonging and collective purpose among group members.
Understanding the concept can help develop effective interventions to modify health-related behaviors such as medication compliance, smoking cessation, and fitness routines.
It can also inform public policy and education programs to better prepare individuals for the future.
Asare, M. (2015). Using the theory of planned behavior to determine the condom use behavior among college students. American Journal of Health Studies, 30(1), 43–50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4621079/
Bosnjak, M., Ajzen, I., & Schmidt, P. (2020). The theory of planned behavior: Selected recent advances and applications. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 16(3), 352–356. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v16i3.3107
Fattahi Ardakani, M., Salehi-Abargouei, A., Sotoudeh, A., Esmaeildokht, S., & Bahrevar, V. (2020). Do subjective norms predict the screening of cancer patients’ first-degree relatives? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, 21(6), 1521–1530. https://doi.org/10.31557/apjcp.2020.21.6.1521
Peters, R. M., & Templin, T. N. (2010). Theory of planned behavior, self-care motivation, and blood pressure self-care. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, 24(3), 172–186. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3728772/
Wong, N. (2019). Injunctive and descriptive norms and theory of planned behavior: Influencing intentions to use sunscreen. Womens Health Complications, 2(1), 1. https://www.sciaeon.org/articles/Injunctive-and-Descriptive-Norms-and-Theory-of-Planned-Behavior-Influencing-Intentions-to-Use-Sunscreen.pdf
Zinchenko, O., & Arsalidou, M. (2017). Brain responses to social norms: Meta‐analyses of f MRI studies. Human Brain Mapping, 39(2), 955–970. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.23895