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Using “Descriptive Norms” In The Classroom

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I recently read about a study that’s a couple of years old that examined different ways that hotels used to encourage guests to conserve water and energy by reusing towels. The New York Times reported on it, and here’s a link to the actual study.

The New York Times reported:

Some guests in a chain hotel saw a sign urging them to “help save the environment” by returning their towels to the rack. Others saw a customized sign that cited their room numbers —saying, for example, “75 percent of the guests who stayed in this room (room 313)” had reused their towels. Other signs prompted guests to join their fellow “citizens” or “men and women” in helping the environment.

By a healthy margin, signs that cited the guests’ room numbers worked best.

The study explains it worked this way because people were:

getting information about social norms. Specifically, they
are getting information about descriptive norms, which refer
to how most people behave in a situation. Descriptive norms
motivate both private and public actions by informing individuals
of what is likely to be effective or adaptive behavior
in that situation (Cialdini, Kallgren, and Reno 1991).
A wide variety of research shows that the behavior of others
in the social environment shapes individuals’ interpretations
of, and responses to, the situation

…getting information about social norms. Specifically, they are getting information about descriptive norms, which refer to how most people behave in a situation. Descriptive norms motivate both private and public actions by informing individuals of what is likely to be effective or adaptive behavior in that situation. A wide variety of research shows that the behavior of others in the social environment shapes individuals’ interpretations of, and responses to, the situation especially in novel, ambiguous, or uncertain situations.

This got me wondering if and how I use this strategy in the classroom.  One way I thought of was how I introduced books to my students — I have my classroom library divided into categories, and one of them is called “popular books.”  These are the ones previous classes have found to be the most interesting.  My students always tend to spend a lot of time checking those out, and, I’m sure, read ones they wouldn’t have looked at if others hadn’t found them popular.

Another time I use this strategy is when I introduce visualizing for success to students. When I explain how many students have done it in the past, I believe it makes it more enticing for my present students.

I don’t necessarily think this strategy changes any longterm behavior, but it does seem to make students more open to trying new things. They may ultimately decide not to pursue it further, but at least they have tried it based on their own initiative.

Are there times when you’ve used “descriptive norms” in your classroom? I’m wondering if there are other opportunities I’m missing….

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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