Does who 'we' are shape what 'we' do? A new look at social identity processes and social norms in the context of university student binge drinking




Willis, Loren

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Social norms have become a popular tool for academics, policymakers, and practitioners to employ when predicting behaviour and influencing widespread change. Yet, social norm interventions have delivered mixed results, with some even increasing the behaviour they were designed to stop.The current state of social norms literature makes utilising norms challenging, as popular behavioural models like the theory of planned behaviour (TPB) and the social norms approach inconsistently conceptualise and operationalise norms. Moreover, norms are often decoupled from the social reality in which they operate, and group psychology is not fully considered as contextual factor influencing perceptions and behaviours. The present thesis disentangles norm constructs and proposes that concepts from the social identity approach be integrated into social norm behaviour models to clarify when and how norms predict behaviour. This thesis advances past research in three key ways; 1) measurements of group identification are rooted in social identity theory, 2) salient social identities are reconceptualised as part of the social context, shaping perceptions of social norms and driving responses to social norm campaigns and, 3) how important a behaviour is to the group identity (assessed as an indicator of identity meaning) is considered a vital part of the social context, as different behaviours will define group meaning in particular situations.Across four studies, we aim to determine whether integrating social identity processes with social norm-related behavioural models improves our understanding of group norm perceptions. These potential advances in norms theory are investigated in the context of university student binge drinking. Binge drinking has been a prominent focus of social norms research over many years but requires further attention and innovative behaviour change solutions given it remains a major health burden.Two studies test an extended TPB model to explore whether the social identity, operationalised as social identity meaning and strength of identification, acts as a background variable, shaping drinking attitudes, perceived behavioural control and three different types of drinking norms. Using path analysis, Study 1 found that social identity predicted drinking attitudes and perceived drinking norms (subjective, descriptive, and injunctive norms), which in turn predicted intentions and behaviour. Study 2 used a longitudinal, cross-lagged panel analysis to show that salient social identity temporally preceded perceptions of most TPB constructs and additional norm types (descriptive, injunctive).Two experiments then explored whether a combination of social identity and social norms, varying in norm type and norm communication content, predicted outcomes of social norm marketing. Experiment 1 found the importance of drinking to group meaning was associated with drinking intentions and interacted with the manipulated norm (binge or non-binge drinking) to predict reactions to norm information. When social identity threat was increased in the Experiment 2, high group identifiers who saw drinking as identity-defining responded to all norm campaigns with heightened reactance, increasing their drinking intentions.The thesis findings supported integrating social identity as a key predictor within existing social norm models. When social norms are used to predict or modify behaviour, it is beneficial to consider what behaviours are tied to meaningful social identities, as groups provide the contextual frame for social norms and beliefs linked to behaviour. The theoretical innovation and research program within this thesis provides a pathway forward to work more effectively with social norms. In the area of binge drinking specifically, the thesis has direct implications for large-scale campaign design. More broadly, it proves a much-needed reconceptualisation of social norms where they remain connected to salient social identities.






Thesis (PhD)

Book Title

Entity type

Access Statement

License Rights



Restricted until