Educators, health professionals, the media and parents/carers tend to focus on the most extreme risk taking behaviours in young people (e.g. early sex, binge drinking etc). This can give us an exaggerated view of young people’s behaviour and make us forget that the vast majority are behaving ‘sensibly’. Furthermore it doesn’t just give ‘us’ that impression, young people also receive distorted impressions about their peers' behaviour.
The normative effect is something I learnt about at a conference a few years ago and despite its proven beneficial influence in health promotion and reducing risky behaviours (it's been heavily researched), its 'use' has not filtered through universally. It’s another counter-intuitive thing (like giving kids sexual aspirations!) that once explained – makes perfect sense.
The normative approach is a model based on the idea that we are influenced so much by our peers – especially when we are teenagers (when we are often at our most 'herding' point in life) - and is best illustrated by example:
If you asked a class of 14 year olds confidentially if they have had sex, 10% might say ‘yes’ (depending upon where you were etc). However, if you ask the same class of pupils how many of their peers they perceive have had sex, their guesses will be more like 90%. The actual norm (reality) is far less than the perceived norm. This misperception is a form of peer influence.
The difference between reality and perception puts a pressure on young people to engage in risky behaviours. If a young person believes that they are the only person who ‘hasn’t’ they will want to remedy this so they become someone who 'has'. One of the most effective things you can tell young people to alter their behaviour is ‘the reality’. For example, ‘did you know that more than half of young people in the UK wait beyond their 16th birthday before having sex’ (a true statistic). This relieves the perceived peer influence/pressure as it helps young people realise that they are actually not the only person who has not had sex.
When the normative approach is applied (and kids are told the true statistics) it shows significant decreases in risk taking behaviour and the most significant reductions are surprisingly in the most vulnerable groups.
Causes of people’s misperception:
Social psychological causes:
conversation patterns (boasting) – exaggerations from young people
mental attribution process - see a person doing it once, tend to think it is what they do all the time. E.g. you see someone drunk – you assume that’s how they carry on all the time.
A focus on extreme behaviours
We, the media, the news, only talk about extreme behaviour and rarely talk about the 95% of people representing the ‘norm’.
Shock tactics are often used to try and scare people out of risky behaviours. Ironically, displaying the extreme ill fait that you are trying to prevent can just make the behaviour seem more the 'norm' and therefore less shocking! e.g. the advert showing a really drunk person falling off scaffolding. Actually most young people didn't relate to that at all because they knew that when they got drunk, they didn't climb up things!
Health professionals tend to focus on the problems in health and exaggerate these problems to get funding etc. This exasperates misperceptions.
This is an example of an advert that was used in the past that exasperates the difference between the actual norm and people’s perceived norm. This advert would be more effective in smoking prevention if it showed most of the fish not smoking and told everyone to be more like everyone else!!!!!