Tag Archives: descriptive norms

How riding the herd mentality may have helped my GCSE classes

Petrified wood - ArizonaMany weeks ago, I grew concerned with the lack of independent preparation that my GCSE classes were doing for their English exams. Held up by the scaffold of intervention around them, I sensed that they’d become too comfortable to break out from it and stand up on their own. But then maybe that is our doing – should we be dismantling their scaffolding piece by piece as they approach the exam, allowing them to become freestanding in good time? Do we do the opposite and add more scaffolding then take it all away at once in the exam hall?

Anyway, they weren’t doing the one thing that I wanted them to do off their own steam: practising exam responses.

As far as I’m concerned, practising exam responses is the most useful thing they can do before the English exam. It’s not just about technique – it’s about engaging with ideas in order to remember them and build on them, as well as preparing language analysis that is flexible and portable: I always tell pupils that their responses in their exam will be replications and adaptations of things they’ve written already if they are well-prepared. ‘Do the work now rather than in the exam’ is a mantra I often repeat to them.

I told them that they should be bringing in – or emailing me – exam responses regularly (over and above scheduled homework responses). The return was underwhelming.

So I started to nag them about the lack of exam responses and how concerning it was: “I am getting very few exam responses. I’m disappointed that only a small minority are working hard enough. The work you put in now is vital to your success!” Still very little. Why weren’t they responding to my genuine concern that they weren’t doing enough as a group? They are very good at responding to me in the classroom. What was different here?

Then, around this same time, I stumbled across a study by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini about creating social norms through the way we communicate. The study, Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment, was particularly interesting in its suggestion about how, when we are trying to establish behavioural norms in groups of people, it can often “backfire to produce the opposite of what a communicator intends.”

The study summarised that:

There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and—most relevant to this article—that rampant polluters are spoiling the environment. Although these claims may be both true and well intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.”

The study goes on to detail an experiment at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which at the time was suffering from the theft of around a ton a month of wood. They had signs up that read: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time. “

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Cialdini and his colleagues felt that this was creating the impression in visitors that stealing wood was normative behaviour. The signs perpetuated the thinking: everyone else is doing it, so there’s no harm in me doing so too.

In order to test their hypothesis, Cialdini and his colleagues replaced the signage and measured the amount of wood stolen when this new signage was displayed.

When they displayed the sign, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest” alongside an image of three visitors taking wood, the percentage of wood stolen over a 5 week period was 7.92%. In contrast, when the sign they displayed read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” (accompanied by an image of a lone visitor stealing wood with a red circle and bar superimposed over the top), only 1.67% of the wood was stolen.

Similar studies have been completed in order to promote other societally beneficial conduct such as reducing energy consumption in whole neighbourhoods. Below is an example of the messages given in that energy consumption study (again by Cialdini) in San Diego:


And here is how those messages converted to changes in energy consumption.

Change in average daily energy use

The message is clear, as Cialdini concludes, we “should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.”

So, by stating my concern that the majority weren’t doing the work, was I convincing them that it was okay not to do the work?

I think so. With this in mind, I immediately started using language that didn’t imply this. I focused my language on emphasising  those that were. And responses began to get more frequent. Now, the rise in frequency may very well correlate with the imminence of the exam: the closer we get, the more we prepare. But I think that by emphasising inductive norms  (what people typically approve or disapprove) over descriptive norms (what people typically do), it has helped a great deal.

A useful reminder of how important our language is in the classroom.

I think I have had practise exam responses emailed to me at almost hourly intervals this weekend. Yes, the exam is in just a few days. But I’m not sure I recall having so many in previous years.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just checked my email and I’ve received 3 more exam responses whilst I’ve been typing this.