STAGE 4. Selecting the theoretical approach

What steps should be completed?

Step 1: Select the theoretical approach or approaches on which the intervention will be based


What are its bases?

The theory of social norms was postulated in the 1980s by Wesley Perkins and Alan Berkowitz1 to explain the effect of social norms on individual behaviour (specifically on the abusive consumption of alcohol in young university students). According to this theory, overestimating problematic behaviours increases these behaviours, while underestimating the real prevalence of healthier behaviours discourages individuals from carrying them out. For a behaviour to be considered normative, it is not necessary for everyone to perform it or have a favourable attitude towards it, but it is enough that most people believe that "everybody" thinks that the behaviour is normal or expected.2 These false beliefs arise from a mismatch between personal perceptions and what happens in reality.

When the rules are implicit, imposed by the few and not discussed, or when erroneously perceived, people adhere to what they believe others do.3 Therefore, a person can start to use drugs because they (mistakenly) believe that this behaviour is performed by the majority and/or expected in their reference group.

Which determinants can be addressed?

This theory enables normative beliefs to be influenced, especially inductive norms (what should be done, the behaviours that we perceive will be approved by other people), descriptive norms (what is actually done), perceived descriptive norms (that determine what we do to adapt to the groups we want to belong to) and subjective norms (perceived opinion of others on our own behaviours).3 Normative beliefs can be influenced at the individual level (influencing personal determinants) and also by modifying the social and/or physical environment (working on contextual determinants).

Practical implications

The theory’s main practical contribution is based on correcting erroneous normative perceptions to reduce problematic behaviours and/or increase healthy ones. The aim is to help people contrast their own attitudes and/or drug use with their perception of the attitudes and use of others and with objective information about the actual attitudes and drug use of others (correcting false beliefs, providing credible and objective drug use data, modifying cultural and social contexts, etc.). The principles of this theory provide a basis for prevention activities and programmes in schools and families, some social communication campaigns, and regulatory policies.



1 Perkins HW & Berkowitz AD. (1986). Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: some research implications for campus alcohol education programming. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 21(9-10):  961-976.

2 Berkowitz AD. (2005). An overview of the social norms approach. In: Lederman L & Stewart L, eds., Changing the culture of college drinking: A socially situated health communication campaign. Creskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press.

3 Burkhart G. (2009). Normative beliefs in preventive strategies: a double-edged sword. Effects of the perception of norms and normality in campaigns Information, school programmes and environmental measures. Revista Española de Drogodependencias. 34(4):  376-400.