The influence of social norms varies with “others” groups: Evidence from COVID-19 vaccination intentions

Nathaniel Rabb, Jake Bowers, David Glick, Kevin H Wilson, David Yokum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The theory that health behaviors spread through social groups implies that efforts to control COVID-19 through vaccination will succeed if people believe that others in their groups are getting vaccinated. But "others" can refer to many groups, including one's family, neighbors, fellow city or state dwellers, or copartisans. One challenge to examining these understudied distinctions is that many factors may confound observed relationships between perceived social norms (what people believe others do) and intended behaviors (what people themselves will do), as there are plausible common causes for both. We address these issues using survey data collected in the United States during late fall 2020 (n = 824) and spring 2021 (n = 996) and a matched design that approximates pair-randomized experiments. We find a strong relationship between perceived vaccination social norms and vaccination intentions when controlling for real risk factors (e.g., age), as well as dimensions known to predict COVID-19 preventive behaviors (e.g., trust in scientists). The strength of the relationship declines as the queried social group grows larger and more heterogeneous. The relationship for copartisans is second in magnitude to that of family and friends among Republicans but undetectable for Democrats. Sensitivity analysis shows that these relationships could be explained away only by an unmeasured variable with large effects (odds ratios between 2 and 15) on social norms perceptions and vaccination intentions. In addition, a prediction from the "false consensus" view that intentions cause perceived social norms is not supported. We discuss the implications for public health policy and understanding social norms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2118770119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number29
StatePublished - Jul 19 2022


  • COVID-19/epidemiology
  • COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Humans
  • Intention
  • Social Norms
  • United States
  • Vaccination
  • COVID-19
  • social norms
  • vaccination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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