Self-regulated studying behavior, and the social norms that influence it
AffiliationUniversity of Southern Indiana
University of British Columbia+
TitleSelf-regulated studying behavior, and the social norms that influence it
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Since the seminal studies of Asch (1956) and Sherif (1936), decades of work show how others' actions and beliefs powerfully influence our own behaviors. Generally, people conform to the behaviors of others to either gain social approval (normative social influence) or to find suitable, effective behaviors in uncertain situations (informational social influence; e.g. Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). These two different motives correspond to different types of normative information: injunctive and descriptive norms, respectively. Injunctive norms tell us what we should or ought to do, and therefore refer to actions that others in a group approve of. They both prescribe accepted actions and proscribe inappropriate be? haviors. If individuals adhere to these norms, they receive social acceptance; conversely, if one disregards these norms, the threat of social sanctions looms (Cialdini & Trost, 1998; Jacobson, Mortensen, & Cialdini, 2011). In contrast, descriptive norms provide information about the actions most others actually do in a given context, offering a consensus about which behaviors are likely to be effective (Jacobson et al., 2011; Kelley, 1967). Because individuals want to be accurate (Lundgren & Prislin, 1998), they adapt their behaviors to that of the group, particularly when situations are ambiguous, uncertain, or novel (Sherif, 1936). In educational contexts, it seems clear to us that teachers use injunctive norms when telling students what they should do (e.g. Dunlosky et al. 2013). But researchers sometimes find descriptive norms more powerfully influence behavior (e.g. Goldstein et al., 2008).
In the present work, we examine which type of norm is more effective at increasing self?regulated studying and performance in an online college course across two semesters. To do this, we randomly assigned 751 undergraduate Introductory Psychology students to receive email messages at the start of every content unit that either contained descriptive norms, injunctive norms, information about the course, or a no message control. Using Bayesian estimation, we found injunctive norms increased study behaviors aimed at fulfilling course requirements (completion of assigned activities), but did not improve learning outcomes. Descriptive norms increased behaviors aimed at improving knowledge (ungraded practice with activities after they were due), and improved performance. These results suggest that norms more effectively influence behavior when there is a match, or a sense of fit, between the goal of the behavior (fulfilling course requirements vs. learning) and the pull of a stated norm (social approval vs. efficacy). Because the goal of education is learning, this suggests descriptive norms have a greater value for motivating self-regulated study in authentic learning environments.