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How Social Norms Influence Individual Health Behaviour

Press Release No. 219/2010
7 October 2010
Heidelberg scientists publish health psychology studies


Health-related human behaviour is significantly influenced by what other people do in comparable situations. Accordingly, campaigns pillorying the fact that only a relatively small number of men participate in cancer screening tests for early detection of the disease are much more likely to have a demotivating effect than to encourage more men to take part. These are the outcomes of two studies on the significance of social norms conducted by a team of Heidelberg University scientists headed by Prof. Dr. Monika Sieverding. The findings relate to gender research and health psychology and have now been published in the journals "Health Psychology" and "Psychological Science".

As Prof. Sieverding explains, people model their behaviour not only on what important reference persons expect them to do but also on the things that other “comparable” people do. Here psychologists distinguish between subjective and descriptive norms. In this connection, the Heidelberg scientists investigated the extent to which descriptive norms– in this case, knowledge about the behaviour displayed by people of the same age and sex – influence the participation of men in cancer screening tests (CST). In a major survey, 2,400 men aged between 45 and 65 were questioned. The respondees who had not yet undergone a CST assumed that only a small number of other men had done so (28 percent). Those participating irregularly, or regularly, in CSTs estimated that the figures were significantly higher, between 36 and 45 percent.

An experimental follow-up study involving 185 randomly selected men between 45 and 70 was designed to test whether information on the behaviour of others has a causal influence on the motivation to undergo such an early-detection test oneself. Here the psychologists were able to make a significant point. If participants were informed that in the previous year only one man in five had undergone such a test, their willingness to do so themselves was also slight. Much greater interest was evinced by another group that had been given very different information, i.e. that two thirds of all men had already undergone a standard CST. “Accordingly,” Prof. Sieverding emphasises, “information indicating that participation in cancer screening has been low among other men is not motivating but demotivating. The reaction is obviously: If so few men undergo such a test, there must be a reason.”

The research work at the Institute of Psychology conducted by Prof. Sieverding in collaboration with Laborio Ciccarello, Sarah Decker, Uwe Matterne and Friederike Zimmermann was part-funded by German Cancer Aid. For more information, go to .

Original publications
Sieverding, M., Decker, S., & Zimmermann, F. (2010). Information about low participation in cancer screening demotivates other people. Psychological Science, 21, No. 7, 941-943, doi: 10.1177/0956797610373936

Sieverding, M., Matterne, U., & Ciccarello, L. (2010). What role do social norms play in the context of men’s cancer screening intention and behavior? Application of an extended theory of planned behavior. Health Psychology, 29, No. 1, 72-81, doi: 10.1037/a0016941


Prof. Dr. Monika Sieverding
Institute of Psychology
phone: +49 6221 547372 or 547329 (secretary)

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