arrow_backEmergency WASH

B.6 Motivators and Barriers: Social Influence, Norms and Group Affiliation

‘Social norms’ are the common understanding within a society of what is acceptable or ‘good’ behaviour. These norms also describe an individual’s beliefs about how they and others should behave within that society or group. They represent the values and traditions of a particular society or group and therefore vary between groups, within society and over time. ‘Gender norms’ relate to the understanding of how men, women, girls and boys should behave in a given context E.3.

There are three dimensions of social norms: 

Descriptive norm: individuals naturally observe the behaviour of others in their surroundings. Usually, individuals want to belong to their social group and therefore will comply with the behaviour of the majority (e.g. people will wear facemasks in public or wash their hands after using the toilet if the majority of their peer group are doing this).

Injunctive norm: individuals will observe and listen to influential people or to those whom they perceive as trustworthy about specific issues (such as hygiene promoters or religious leaders) e.g. if a mother tells her daughter to use reusable menstrual cloths, she will be more likely to do so. 

Personal norm: every individual has their own values and convictions about what is good or bad; these beliefs might be based on their society’s shared understanding, or be the result of personal reflection. For example, a person will consistently dispose of her child’s faeces safely, if she believes that protecting her family’s health is very important to her. 

Scientific research has shown that HP activities targeting social norms can be very successful at influencing behaviour change. A well-known example is the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS, F.2) approach which uses different activities to shift the prevailing norm of open defecation to a new social norm of everyone using a toilet. Through the CLTS activities, the whole community comes to perceive open defecation as ‘undesirable’ and toilet use as ‘desirable’, creating a new social norm that subsequently exerts pressure on everyone else to follow it. 

A variety of behaviour change tools and approaches can be used to influence and strengthen social norms (chapter  T  and chapter  F ).

Process & Good Practice

  • Assess and analyse the current social norms relating to WASH (including gender norms) using a variety of assessment techniques (chapter  A ), as soon as time permits. Assess descriptive, injunctive and personal norms.

  • Use the analysis and understanding from an assessment to shape the HP implementation and communication plans C.10.

  • Provide people with opportunities to observe others’ behaviour (T.10, T.12 or T.32): by observing the behaviour of their peers or family members, participants are induced to perform the same behaviour and follow the new norm.

  • Encourage people to talk to others: prompt participant groups to talk to others about the desired behaviour in question. This increases awareness of what others are doing and of what might be healthy or detrimental.

  • Encourage Public Commitment T.37: participant groups are asked to pledge their commitment to practise the desired behaviour publicly, thus showing others that they accept and value the behaviour. 

  • Highlight the (dis)approval of others: influential people are requested to show their approval of the desired behaviour or their disapproval of the unhealthy behaviour and this can influence the behaviour of others who respect them. 

  • Encourage people to resist social pressure: participants are prompted to anticipate and prepare for negative comments from others or to resist pressure to continue the undesired behaviour.

  • Identify role models: participants are prompted to set a good example (e.g. for children) by engaging in the desired behaviour, setting themselves up as representatives of the new social norm and encouraging others to follow.

  • Identify and use normative Nudges T.9 where participants are asked to reflect on values that are important to them. Reminders of these values (e.g. protection of family health) are placed at the main locations where the decision to perform the desired behaviour should be taken. For example visual images can be used, such as a picture located at the latrine of a healthy family or a famous footballer washing their hands, to remind the participant of her/his values.

  • Highlight the alignment of personal norms and benefits: participants are invited to reflect on the kinds of benefits (e.g. health or financial) they can receive for themselves or their loved ones if they perform the desired behaviour and recognise how these benefits are connected to their own personal values. 



To influence and shape individual and group hygiene behaviour, with a particular focus on social influence, norms and group affiliation as potential barriers and motivators for change.


  • People have a strong desire to belong to a social group (e.g. family, religious, political or cultural groups) and to be accepted by the group. To be accepted, they are prepared to adhere to so-called social ‘norms’ - the general understanding within the group of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. Hygiene promoters need to understand how to use social norms to design effective programmes.

  • Targeting social norms through hygiene promotion (HP) can create a shift in a group’s understanding of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and generate a fruitful basis for successful behaviour change. It can increase social pressure and support individuals to comply with the new norm of performing a safe behaviour. 


Practical guide on including social norms in behaviour change programming

Petit, V., Zalk, T. (2019): Everybody Wants to Belong: A Practical Guide to Tackling and Leveraging Social Norms in Behavior Change Programming, UNICEF, PENN SoNG

Definition of social norms and how to change them

Bicchieri, C. (2016): Norms in the Wild. How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0190622053

Information on targeting gender norms

Marcus, R., Harper, C. (2014): Gender Justice and Social Norms – Processes of Change for Adolescent Girls. Towards a Conceptual Framework 2, Overseas Development Institute

A list of pratical behaviour change techniques to tackle social norms

Mosler, H., Contzen, N. (2016): Systematic Behavior Change in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. A Practical Guide Using the RANAS Approach Version 1.0