When decisions are based on social norms rather than our preferences

We make many decisions daily, ranging from minor ones such as buying shoes, to major ones such as picking a school for our children. Although it might appear that our personal preferences drive our choices, in reality, people often choose options that they do not necessarily prefer the most.

Why? That is what we set out to investigate with a study that posed this question: Can socio-cultural concerns lead people to choices inconsistent with their own preferences?

The answer to this question has huge implications for marketers looking to sway the consumer dollar. Currently, most marketing strategies focus on the direct appeal of the product. Our research suggests that marketing strategies should target something else: the power of social norms to shift consumers' preferences.

My team - Monica Wadhwa of Insead, Yukiko Uchida of Kyoto University, Yu Ding of the National University of Singapore (currently at Columbia University) and N. V. R. Naidu of M.S. Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bangalore - conducted several experiments to trace the consumer decision- making process - starting from initial stated preference to actual final choice - using a simple three-step process. Participants first expressed their preferences for different products; then we varied the norm; finally they completed the cycle by making their choice.

Our aim was to assess if by varying the normative conditions at the intermediary process, participants would still make the final choice consistent with their first stated preference. Or more simply, we wanted to investigate how powerful normative conditions were in shaping final consumer decisions.

Using previous research which found that Asians were more concerned about what others thought of them than Americans, we picked two communities for our studies - Indians and Americans.


Volunteers, led by Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, picking up litter to help clean up the East Coast Park. The power of social opinion can also be harnessed to reduce negative social behaviour, such as littering, by highlighting that others are watching and will judge such behaviour unfavourably. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Participants were exposed to subtle social cues such as smiling eyes or frowning eyes, or asked to write a norm-manipulated essay, before they were asked to make their final product choice. Results showed that Indian participants were more affected than American participants by the norm manipulation.

Effective strategies for Asian markets thus need to go beyond focusing only on the product to include more socially suggestive messages, such as "This is what most other Singaporeans are choosing", "Your colleagues will envy you if you buy this bag", or "80 per cent of smart consumers already choose this brand of vitamins".

n another experiment, participants completed a simple survey and then were told if their value profiles were very similar to or different from others within their community, before they made their final product choice. Indian participants who were told their values were similar made final decisions that increased the distance from their peers; but when told their values were very different, made choices closer to the norm. By contrast, Americans' final choices were unaffected by this norm manipulation.

These results show that there is a marked difference between how Indian and American people make decisions. Asian consumers do not always choose according to their own individual preferences, but often in response to what society expects of them, what other consumers are buying, and if others will positively evaluate their choice.

Effective strategies for Asian markets thus need to go beyond focusing only on the product to include more socially suggestive messages, such as "This is what most other Singaporeans are choosing", "Your colleagues will envy you if you buy this bag", or "80 per cent of smart consumers already choose this brand of vitamins".

The Government could similarly harness this power when rolling out a new social policy. Campaigns need to go beyond simply promoting the terms of the policy, to touting its benefits or emphasising that the rest of the population supports it.

Another strategy could be to provide evidence that a similar policy has been successfully rolled out in a well-respected country, well accepted by its populace and its benefits well-documented. External social validation is a powerful force for the Asian consumer.

The same forces can also be harnessed to reduce negative social behaviour, such as littering, abuse of the elderly or xenophobia - by highlighting that others are watching and will judge such behaviour unfavourably. For example, in using celebrities to denounce the consumption of shark's fin, social activists have cleverly used "important" figures to endorse a particular value.

This understanding of the power of social opinion can also be applied to corporations. For example, implementing a new medical or operating system requires significant adjustments on the part of employees. Management can appeal to the sense of collective opinion, emphasising that most others at the workplace do approve of the new plan, or tout that a highly regarded multinational corporation has already embarked on this same system as a form of extended social validation.

However, marketers should note that these strategies will only work in Asian countries and may not work for consumers in other countries, like the United States, as our research has shown that they are less likely to be swayed by social norms. Marketers, management and governments need to understand the different market segmentation and adapt their strategies accordingly.

In essence, our research shows that beyond rolling out just content, influencers in Asia need to extend their effort to shaping the social space around a product or policy.


  • The writer is an Assistant Professor of Strategy, Management and Organisation at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'When decisions are based on social norms rather than our preferences'. Print Edition | Subscribe