Zenzo Sibanda | Palladium - Jul 22 2019
"Well, everyone is doing it!" How Can Donors Break Bad Social Norms?

From the unfair treatment of women to petty corruption, behaviours that are harmful to others are often perpetuated and maintained by 'negative social norms.' People may believe such behaviours are acceptable or even expected of them.

While some social norms bring benefits to society or are innocuous, others can be very harmful and are often self-reinforcing and difficult to break. What can donors and implementers do to make sure our work is combatting negative social norms – the root causes of many damaging behaviours?

1. Start small and focused

One way to help people see the negative aspects of their beliefs and actions is to work with a small number of people at a time. Small groups are more likely to break a bad norm in the short term. This reduces the 'reference group' - the social group that individuals relate to when acting out a social norm - that reinforces the norm. This then increases the likelihood that a norm can be changed, at least in the short term.

Working with a few people at time also allows for a more focused understanding of the impacts of negative social norms and potentially more scrutiny by members of this group of their beliefs and actions in the long term. More importantly, it is likely that people who learn about the impacts of negative social norms will use their learning to positively influence their reference group and society at large. A similar approach was used by Palladium and its partners on the UK aid funded Voices for Change (V4C) program which focused on the self, society, and institutions to break the social norms limiting young women’s empowerment in Nigeria.

 V4C used radio shows to change young people's attitudes towards women's role in Nigerian society.
V4C used radio shows to change young people's attitudes towards women's role in Nigerian society.

2. Support anonymous communication

Researchers have found that supporting group members to share their beliefs anonymously can increase the possibility of breaking the persistence of a negative social norm. Ordinarily, group members never see the need to question commonly held beliefs and continue with their actions as 'the norm'. A key reason for this is that the influence of a wider group on an individual can be overwhelming to the extent that they are unable to express their own thoughts or preferences aside of the group. Anonymity gives the group members room to pause and think for themselves.

3. Make change matter, especially to those whose behaviour needs to change

While many social movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have been successful at communicating how harmful some common practices are, making this matter to the perpetrators is much more difficult. It is important that such innovative movements are coupled with focused attention on perpetrators' various motivations for their actions, which will help clarify how to make change matter to them.

4. Social norms research and program development must be locally led

DFID and other donors are learning the complexity of social norms work, and programs are beginning to emerge that try to respond to this complexity. The challenge is to make each effort suit the context and for leadership to draw together and amplify the different voices that need to be heard to deliver such programs. To achieve this, it is important that local institutions and civil society champion the cause of trying to find solutions to such challenges. The improved capacity of 'local champions' to address these challenges is an important to achieve sustainability beyond the life of donor funded programs.

The Psychology of the Problem

These four ways donor programs can work to break negative social norms combat the multiple reasons these norms exist in the first place. It's important to understand the root of the problem:

  • Social Pressure: People believe their action is 'common' and that 'everyone is doing it'. People often tell themselves what they're doing is acceptable, where previously they may have stopped themselves. When people believe that others think a behaviour is acceptable, they are more likely to engage in it to feel part of a wider community. That is, the behaviour is perpetuated due to social pressure.

  • Acceptable Beliefs: Sometimes, people perpetuate negative social norms because of their own beliefs as to what is acceptable behaviour. For example, people may believe that that men are superior to women, leading them to treat women unfairly. Or they may believe that people in positions of power must be given gifts in exchange for their cooperation, contributing to corruption.

  • Dependence: Sometimes negative social norms continue because victims may be dependant in some way on the perpetrators of the norms and the wider networks that reinforce these norms. For example, in environments where child marriage is generally accepted, the wider network (such as the extended family or family friends) may believe that child marriage is normal, effectively reinforcing the norm and leaving the child – often from an underprivileged background with limited options and dependent on another caregiver - with nowhere to turn to.

Breaking negative social norms as a frontier for behavioural change is a step in the right direction. Donor programs that try to break these norms must be designed with incremental impact in mind; initially starting small and focused, continuously making change matter, and effectively strengthening local capacity. This will ideally open spaces and pathways for innovation to widen the focus and increase the impact of social norms work.

Palladium managed the implementation of Voices for Change (V4C), a program funded with UK aid by the British people that worked to break negative social norms.