Children's conformity to social norms to eat healthy : a developmental perspective

Hang, Haiming and Davies, Iain and Schüring, Jennifer (2020) Children's conformity to social norms to eat healthy : a developmental perspective. Social Science and Medicine, 244. 112666. ISSN 0277-9536 (

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Rationale: Previous studies suggest injunctive norms (prompts of what people ought to do) are stronger predictors of healthy eating intentions, whereas descriptive norms (prompts of what people are doing) are stronger predictors of healthy eating behaviors. However, previous research provides little insight into why different norms influence children's health intentions and behaviors differently. In addition, no research has explored developmental differences in children's conformity to, or rejection of, different types of social normative influence. Thus, this paper adopts a developmental perspective to understand why children conform differently to descriptive and injunctive norm messaging on healthy eating. Method: An experiment was done with 405 children in Germany aged 7 to 16. The research design was a 4 (social norms: descriptive vs. injunctive peer vs. injunctive authority vs. control) × 2 (developmental stage: middle childhood vs. adolescence) between-subject design. Children's healthy eating intentions and behaviors were collected as key dependent variables. Results: and conclusions: The experimental results suggest that children mainly use a descriptive norm as an information shortcut to behaving “appropriately”. This should have a stronger impact on younger children than older ones, although both young and old children consider it easier to understand than an injunctive norm. The experimental results further suggest that an injunctive norm mainly influences children via activation of a motive for maintaining a positive self-image in public, rather than one of affiliation. These results are very important for social research on health, because they can explain why different social norms influence health intentions and behaviors differently. In addition, our finding that injunctive norm conformity is mainly used for impression management purposes can reconcile existing contradictory results on the impact of social norms on children.