Theory and practice of social norms interventions: eight common pitfalls

Beniamino Cislaghi and Lori Heise Globalization and Health, 2018; Read the full paper online

Recently, Global Health practitioners, scholars, and donors have expressed increased interest in “changing social norms” as a strategy to promote health and well-being in low and mid-income countries (LMIC). Despite this burgeoning interest, the ability of practitioners to use social norm theory to inform health interventions varies widely. 

This paper identifies eight pitfalls that practitioners must avoid as they plan to integrate a social norms perspective in their interventions. It also identifies the following eight learnings:

  1. Social norms and attitudes are different
  2. Social norms and attitudes can coincide
  3. Protective norms can offer important resources for achieving effective social improvement in people’s health-related practices
  4. Harmful practices are sustained by a matrix of factors that need to be understood in their interactions
  5. The prevalence of a norm is not necessarily a sign of its strength
  6. Social norms can exert both direct and indirect influence
  7. Publicising the prevalence of a harmful practice can make things worse
  8. People-led social norm change is both the right and the smart thing to do.

As the understanding of how norms evolve in LMIC advances, practitioners will develop a greater understanding of what works to help people lead change in harmful norms within their contexts. Awareness of these pitfalls has helped several of them increase the effectiveness of their interventions addressing social norms in the field. The authors are confident that others could benefit from these reflections as well.

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