Using Social Norms to Increase Donations

Research conducted with: Ting Jiang, Judd B. Kessler, Greg Segal, Dan Ariely

If you are like most people, there is a good chance your behavior is based on what you think others are doing. College students consume more alcohol if they think their classmates are drinking heavily. If you tell college students their classmates don’t drink as much as they might think, these students drink less alcohol. Similarly, if you tell someone their neighbor doesn’t consume lots of energy, this person makes an effort to consume less energy. This is decision-making based on social norms and can be leveraged to increase donations.

We wanted to explore social norms marketing when the social norm is bad. We looked more specifically at organ donation. How does an organization use social norms marketing to boost organ donations when not a lot of people are organ donors?


We started from the idea that social norms influence people in two ways. First, people want to do what other people do. Second, people want to do what other people think is the good thing to do. To sound smart, we academics call the first kind of social norm the “descriptive norm” – think of it as the “description” of what people do. We call the second kind of social norm the “injunctive norm” – it’s an “injunction,” an instruction on how to behave well, or what we should do.

At the time of our experiment, only 45% of Americans were organ donors, so the “descriptive norm” was bad and would likely backfire if used in marketing. But we also knew from surveys that 95% of Americans supported organ donation. That was something we could work with. So we decided to use the injunctive norm in social norms marketing.


We partnered up with ORGANIZE, a non-profit that has made it easy for people to register as an organ donor. On ORGANIZE’s website, people can register in less than a minute, and the information becomes available in a central registry. We ran an experiment with them on Giving Tuesday, after Black Friday, in 2015. We sent out emails to 719 employees of a large firm to invite them to register to become an organ donor. Our test was very simple. We had the standard email, and then we created a second email which was exactly the same except for one line in the header of the email that read: “95% of Americans support organ donation.” That is, we included information about the injunctive norm. What effect would that have?

social norm to increase donation

Standard header

support organ donation

Header with “injunctive norm”

We found that, of the employees who received our standard email, only 1.3% registered as an organ donor. In contrast, of the employees who received the email with the injunctive norm, 4.9% registered as an organ donor. Of course, these registration rates are pretty low, because generally people tend to ignore these types of emails. But our social norms message almost quadrupled registrations.


Our experiment shows that you can still do social norms marketing even when the descriptive norm isn’t positive (i.e. most people are doing the bad thing). So, say you’re trying to do social norms marketing in a school where many of the students truly are perpetually sloshed, or a neighborhood where most people really consider it too arduous to flip the light switch off. Don’t yet despair. Try asking people what they think should ideally be done. Chances are that, even though behaviors are bad, opinions aren’t. That’s a start that you can build on.

There are many behaviors that many people approve of although few do it:

  • bring your own bags to the supermarket,
  • turn down the AC and just wear a T-shirt,
  • visit Aunt Cornelia (nobody goes anymore),
  • eat less meat,
  • give regularly to charity,
  • do courtesy flushes in public bathrooms,

The last thing you want to do is to complain about how few people do these things, because it will only justify not doing it. Try the injunctive norm: What do people think should be done? Talk about that, and suddenly you can use social forces to your advantage.

Dr. Jan Willem Lindemans is senior researcher in the Global Team at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Distract him from important work by emailing