Normification: Social Norms and Competitive Gamification

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Author: Jordi Moretón Galí >> @jordimgali

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As in an old article we wrote circa 2013 we talked about motivation theories (link), in this one we’ll focus on theories about social norms, captivated by the lecture of an interesting article and an example of an engagement platform which exploits these norms.

Social norms can be defined as collective representations of acceptable group behaviors –collective norms- as well as the individual perception about group behaviors –perceived norms- (Lapinski & Rimal 2005)

Contrary to legal rules, breaching social norms doesn’t imply a penalty, but some kind of social blame or disapproval, and that is a primary motivational factor.

The article that captivated us deals with the application of social norms to drive competitive engagement dynamics in crowd science projects. To this strategy authors name it Normification:

Preist, C., Massung, E. & Coyle, D., 2014. Competing or aiming to be average?: Normification as a means of engaging digital volunteers. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing – CSCW ’14. pp. 1222–1233.

Where Gamification uses the ludic spirit to motivate, Normification exploits social rules (i.e. moral values).

The article highlights three theories/models:

The first one is the Focus Theory of Normative Conduct (Cialdini et al. 1990), which classifies social norms in two types:

  • Descriptive norms represent what typically happen (in present) in a specific situation, what most others do. When we talk about “this is the normal thing to do”, “this is what everyone would do”, we are assessing based on descriptive norms.
  • Injunctive norms dictate how we should behave (in conditional) in a specific situation that most others would (dis-)approve. Even though the descriptive and injunctive norms go hand in hand, we often acknowledge the “normal” behavior is not the most acceptable one.

The Theory of Normative Social Behavior (Rimal 2005) deepens on the previous theory by identifying three existing factors that moderate the relationship between descriptive norms and behavior intentions:

  • Injunctive norms, which we already explained.
  • Outcome expectations, meaning, the individual belief that his or her actions will lead to benefits for himself, for his group and/or to facilitate socialization with third parties.
  • Group identity, meaning, the individual feels affinity and desires connection with the reference group, leading to behavior changes.

Finally, the Norm Activation Model of (Schwartz 1977; Harland et al. 1999) extends the norms theory. This model adds personal norms based on subjective moral obligations. It tries to explain how personal norms are activated. The hypothesis says the activation is a combination of:

  • The consciousness of consequences, this means the degree of awareness of people about the problems that cause their behavior.
  • Ascription of responsibility, meaning the extent to which people feel responsible for the problems that cause their behavior
  • The efficiency of the results, meaning the degree to which people believe that the actions taken will lead to a positive outcome.

WaterSmart is the name of the platform referred initially in this article. It’s based precisely on these kinds of theories. It’s a platform for user water consumption[1] that integrates an engagement layer based on the application of social norms:

Comparisons aren’t always odious, as we’ll see later. Source:

As you can see the Gamification of this platform is based on comparing the water consumption between neighbors  (the descriptive norm, to drive the high consumers to the average of water consumption) and also compares consumption between the best (the injunctive norm, for those who consume less than average are not swayed by this and maintain their behavior).

So…¿What can we do with social norms theory in our gamification architecture designs? On one hand to explain behaviors and design with more knowledge and insight of what’s going on. On the other hand as an alternative way to engagement design with users to whom a peer pressure component might motivate better.

One of the paper points that interested us the most is the one referring to the potential demotivation effects of competitive Gamification on certain users. Those are adverse effects, difficult to foresee and little-studied. Preist et al. (2014) cite some experimental case studies and, among others, recommend combining elements of Gamification with Normified feedback information in this way:

  • Allow the most competitive users to compete in their own league in a way that other users don’t get demotivated.
  • Design an optional mechanic to allow competition with oneself.
  • Encourage the sense of engagement using a collective and meaningful objective and reduce stimuli that push to compete explicitly.

In our opinion this work represents a new line of research for Gamification design. As the cited authors point, we still need much more experimentation. In GECON we believe it is key to the effectiveness of Gamification strategies to understand how competitive mechanics affect different user groups. As this, even if you include “Normification” into your vocabulary or if you consider it part of Gamification (i.e. peer pressure), the use of social norms theories is a vast field of study.

To put it briefly, we recommend everyone interested in Gamification and general engagement to take a look at the paper that, fortunately, it’s open at the University of Bristol repository, link :)

[1] We at GECON are very aware of environmental issues and we think gamification has a lot to say to help solve some aspects of these. In fact we have been involved in R&D&I projects cofounded by the Spanish Government, such as LivingCO2 and ReuseTIC which feature gamification and serious games techniques.


Cialdini, R.B., Reno, R.R. & Kallgren, C. a., 1990. A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), pp.1015–1026.

Harland, P., Staats, H. & Wilke, H.A.M., 1999. Explaining Proenvironmental Intention and Behavior by Personal Norms and the Theory of Planned Behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(12), pp.2505–2528.

Lapinski, M.K. & Rimal, R.N., 2005. An explication of social norms. Communication Theory, 15(2), pp.127–147.

Preist, C., Massung, E. & Coyle, D., 2014. Competing or aiming to be average?: Normification as a means of engaging digital volunteers. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing – CSCW ’14. pp. 1222–1233.

Rimal, R.N., 2005. How Behaviors are Influenced by Perceived Norms: A Test of the Theory of Normative Social Behavior. Communication Research, 32(3), pp.389–414.

Schwartz, S.H., 1977. Normative Influences on Altruism. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 10(C), pp.221–279.