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Will changing your Facebook profile picture do anything for marriage equality?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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HRC Equality Logo As SCOTUS debates the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and DOMA this week, Facebook users all over the nation have become part of a burgeoning social media trend. Supporters of marriage equality have been changing their profile pictures to the icon on the left, a version of the Human Rights Campaign logo designed specifically to indicate support for same-sex marriage rights.

Although many people have said that it’s been personally meaningful to sign onto Facebook and see a screen full of red avatars, many have criticized the trend for being a silly way of “showing support” without actually accomplishing anything significant. However, although the SCOTUS justices might not be checking Facebook to tally up the red avatars before rendering a decision, a demonstration of solidarity like this one really could end up making an impact.

The reason why those avatars might actually make a difference has to do with the fact that at the end of the day, there’s a part of our brains that never quite made it out of high school. Namely, we’re all too susceptible to the powers of peer pressure, or social proof. Our friends, family, and the people around us exert strong influences on our attitudes and behavior, whether intentional or not.

One of the big ways that the people around us exert these influences is through the use of norms, those messages that we send out about what’s acceptable, appropriate, and…well, normal. Descriptive norms simply describe the way that things are, whereas prescriptive norms offer a mandate about how things should be. For example, if I said that most college students go to class wearing jeans and sweatshirts, that would be a descriptive norm. If I said that you should wear jeans and a sweatshirt in order to fit in, that would be prescriptive. Quite possibly the most important takeaway point from all of the research that’s been done on norms is just how powerful descriptive norms can be. When people try to change behavior, they often focus on prescriptive norms, telling people what they should do. We often underestimate just how strongly we respond to what other people actually do.

In a classic study, Cialdini and colleagues manipulated the signs that were displayed in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, a site often plagued by tourists who end up grabbing some of the petrified wood to take home as a souvenir. In situations like this, the first inclination of well-meaning environmentalists might be to set a strong prescriptive norm — perhaps by saying something like, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest. This is bad, don’t do this.” The idea here would be to invoke a sense of shame and severity before asking visitors to refrain from taking the wood. But read that prescriptive message once again. Is there anything descriptive in there? Yes, of course there is. That message is not just telling you that you shouldn’t take the wood — it’s also telling you that most other people do. In fact, people were actually more likely to steal wood from the forest when they saw the sign telling them how many people tend to do it themselves, even though the very next sentence was asking them to refrain. But when the researchers simply tweaked the message to read that “the vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, helping to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” the thievery plummeted.

We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

We see this happen all of the time in the world around us. Have you stayed in a hotel lately? If you have, then you’ve probably seen the little cards requesting that you re-use your towels to help conserve water. Well, as you can probably guess by now, the wording on those cards actually matters. Simply telling travelers that the majority of guests reuse their towels is more effective at getting them to re-use their own than a prescriptive plea asking guests to help protect the environment.

If you go door-to-door soliciting donations for your charity, simply presenting a longer list of existing donors will increase the odds that the next person you approach will actually donate. After all, if most people tend to donate, you certainly don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t. This is why bartenders and baristas will “salt the tip jar” by putting in a few dollars of their own before their shifts begin. People will give more if they think that it’s “normal” to do so.

If you are given five positive reviews about a book, you will rate the book more favorably if you hear the five reviews coming from five separate voices than if you hear all five of the same reviews coming from the same voice, even if the information that you’re getting is exactly the same. Why? Because the more you see a wide variety of people doing, endorsing, or believing something, the stronger that descriptive norm becomes — and the more likely you are to make sure your attitudes or behavior match up.

And even though most people report that they find TV shows with laugh tracks to be incredibly annoying, they will end up laughing more when they watch shows that have them, and will go on to rate those shows as having been funnier. Why? Because without even realizing it, the sheer act of hearing other people laugh throughout the half-hour program — even if you consciously know that the laughter was fake — sends a message to your brain that it is “normative” for people to find that content funny.

Which brings us back to Facebook. When looking at the literature on descriptive norms and social proof, there’s one finding that consistently pops out – the more targeted the norm, the more effective it is. For the towels, referring to the majority of past guests who stayed in that room has a stronger effect than referring to the majority of past guests who stayed at that hotel. For the door-to-door charity, the effect on donations was even stronger when the names on the list of prior donors were people that the potential new donor actually knew, like close friends or neighbors. We don’t just respond to descriptive norms — we respond particularly strongly to descriptive norms set by the people that we care about. Which, presumably, includes the people (or at least, some of the people) that we are linked to on Facebook.

People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do.

And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.

So, no. The fact that you’ve replaced that picture of yourself mugging for the camera with a red square and an equal sign will not cause Justice Kennedy to bang his gavel or stomp his foot and say that he’s come to a final decision on the matter, and that it’s all because of your new profile picture. Changing your Facebook image will not have a direct impact on our legislation.

But a widespread descriptive norm implying that it is socially acceptable to advocate for same-sex marriage and that most people in contemporary American society seem to be pro-marriage-equality?

Now that just might.

Platow, M., Haslam, S., Both, A., Chew, I., Cuddon, M., Goharpey, N., Maurer, J., Rosini, S., Tsekouras, A., & Grace, D. (2005). “It’s not funny if they’re laughing”: Self-categorization, social influence, and responses to canned laughter Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41 (5), 542-550 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2004.09.005

Lee, K. (2004). The Multiple Source Effect and Synthesized Speech. Human Communication Research, 30 (2), 182-207 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2004.tb00730.x

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79, 72–79.

Cialdini, R.B. (1993). Influence (3rd ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Image of the HRC equality logo via Wikimedia Commons, designated as a public domain image.


Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Hraefn 12:16 pm 03/28/2013

    I agree, and I think it illustrates why many advocates of marriage equality are confident in their position regardless of SCOTUS’ eventual decisions in Windsor and Hollingsworth. Deep down, even opponents appear to be beginning to develop a sense that widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable (Rush L. is a recent example). Even if the public is unaware of what a descriptive norm is and how it impacts their decision making processes, they subconsciously seem to understand that a snowball has begun rolling that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse or slow once it has built up sufficient momentum. The fact that there are concrete examples of it happening before makes the outcome even more certain.

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  2. 2. Common_Sense 2:06 pm 03/28/2013

    To answer the question in the title: No, it won’t.

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  3. 3. susskins 3:51 pm 03/28/2013

    Oh. Well then I’ll disregard all the arguments in the article. Thank you for setting me straight.

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  4. 4. SoundingTheSea 4:36 pm 03/28/2013

    Thanks for writing this up in more detail. I was hoping you would after yesterday’s tweet. :)

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  5. 5. hanmeng 7:43 pm 03/28/2013

    This also means that thousands of people making their opinions on _other_ issues immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious on Facebook is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm in _those_ areas, too. The crazies are coming.

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  6. 6. samsproul 12:21 am 03/29/2013

    it obviously doesn’t make a difference in the general sense, but more of a friend-circle type of awareness.

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  7. 7. LizSch 8:56 am 03/29/2013

    You seem to miss a critical point; many of us, present company included, changed our avatars to demonstrate to our gay/lesbian/trans/bi friends that we stand in solidarity with them. That changes the paradigm entirely; are we trying to influence the courts or support those we care most about? Just a thought.

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  8. 8. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 10:59 am 03/29/2013

    Hi LizSch:

    That is a good point, and another very important reason why many have chosen to change their pictures. However, I was more trying to answer the question of whether or not it “makes a difference” in an activism sense, as many have raised that concern over the past few days. In terms of support for the community, I think that is a very real and meaningful benefit, but not many people were debating its potential validity. I merely wanted to call attention to the fact that those complaining about “armchair activism” or “slacktivism” would benefit from considering the power of something as simple as a descriptive norm.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    - Melanie

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  9. 9. jlongino 2:15 pm 03/29/2013

    Hi Melanie,

    While I agree that social proofing is a pretty powerful form of persuasion and that Facebook should increase that persuasion since most people find their immediate social graph authoritative, I have some questions about your analysis.
    It seems to me that most of your examples (hotels, bars, the Petrified Forest, etc) are mostly areas that people go into with a mostly ambivalent opinion on the activity in question. In these cases, it seems social proof would have a higher amount of persuasion than in cases where someone already has a strong opinion. Someone who worked in the hospitality industry would probably not find an empty tip jar a barrier to tipping. Likewise, someone who has a strong opinion that employers should pay more to employees would not find a salted tip jar an inducement to tipping. So one characteristic of a highly persuadable Facebook user is an ambivalence or uncertainty around marriage equality. I’m not sure how many users like that exist, but I’m guessing it’s not that high.
    Also, Facebook constructs a highly self-selected social graph where it’s likely that members share a significant number of traits. People are friends with people like them. If 5% of one’s friends change their profile pictures, you no longer have a norm. The power of a descriptive norm decreases as the visibility of the norm decreases, and the visibility varies heavily depending on who happens to exist in a particular user’s social graph. So another characteristic of a highly persuadable Facebook user is that most of their friends have a strong enough opinion to change their profile pictures.
    How many people do you think have a weak opinion on a subject, but most of their friends (enough to create the perception of a descriptive norm across their social graph) have a strong opinion? I wouldn’t expect the number to be particularly high, but I’m interested in your thoughts.

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  10. 10. Melanie Tannenbaum in reply to Melanie Tannenbaum 3:03 pm 03/29/2013

    Hi jlongino,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I am considering a follow-up post on the two main types of social influence (normative vs. informational), as many have raised this point and research on the difference between these two phenomena can speak a bit to what might be at play here. It’s a very good question. I would be happy to let you know when it goes up!


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  11. 11. Ralph Haygood 3:31 pm 03/29/2013

    By the way, something that amplifies the phenomenon is the widespread use of Facebook commenting on sites besides Facebook. For example, I was just looking at an otherwise apolitical BuzzFeed page with Facebook comments, and sure enough, some of the commenters had HRC equality avatars. People who say, “oh but all your Facebook friends already know where you stand” are missing this point.

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  12. 12. YalzJ 3:04 pm 03/31/2013

    Great post Melanie! LizSch, Even if your primary motivation for changing your avatar was to show solidarity with your loved ones, you still contributed to the perception of a descriptive norm because you did it in a public way, no? jlongino, while Facebook “friends” are certainly not a random sampling of the general population, online social networks generally reach far beyond the primary group of people that an individual interacts with on a regular basis and has the most in common with. Most people have several overlapping social spheres within their online social graph. So it’s plausible that many people within the subset of Facebook users that are ambivalent about marriage equality were influenced by the descriptive norm created by spread of the HRC logo, especially if they saw it from different social groups within their broader network. As Melanie pointed out, five positive book reviews will influence your opinion more when they come from five different voices. Of course the critical mass that will influence an individual depends on the strength of their convictions. But, given that this has obviously gone beyond Facebook, even more people may be influenced.

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  13. 13. erinalyssavogel 9:03 pm 03/31/2013

    Hi Melanie!

    We met at SPSP (I was Mandy’s thesis student who used your personal statement to help me write mine), and I’m just now getting around to checking out your blog posts and Twitter account. I wanted to thank you for this post! Norm perception is one of my research interests and marriage equality has personal significance for me, so this post caught my attention.

    If you get a chance, I’d be curious to hear what you think about people who use variations of the profile picture to show that they are against marriage equality (such as turning it into a division sign instead of an equal sign). Do you think that they are helping their cause, or just making the profile picture even more salient?

    Erin Vogel

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  14. 14. Matt2789 6:27 pm 04/3/2013

    I agree with this article 100%. So many of my FB friends are very cynical of the Equality Profile pic trend (even if they might support gay marriage).

    Everyone likes to believe they are such independent thinkers and that their beliefs come from their own “lone island” without influence. In reality most people who are accepting of gay marriage today would not have been 20 years ago (myself included) when being gay was much more taboo than it is today. Small influences (like the FB equality profile picture trend) slowly change public perceptions on certain issues which in turn influence all of our opinions. Slowly that weeds it way all the up to the Supreme Court.

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  15. 15. Ausktribosphenos 9:02 pm 11/21/2014

    Very interesting read. I must say however, that such gestures of solidarity are effective only when major political momentum has been accomplished. For instance, issues of animal ethics don’t have the same political threshold reached by gay rights, so posting profile pics against vivisection or factory farming will not yield the same result. In this case the “high school” part of the brain works in favor of the cause because enough “herd” members are in on it, if there weren’t, I fear there woudn’t be the support for gay rights. In other words, there have to be enough people in favor of a change before it attracts new followers.

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