Examining the interaction between descriptive norms and positive outcome expectations on students' exercise behaviour over a final exam period


Focus theory of normative conduct (Cialdini et al.,1990) postulates that individuals are more likely to perform a behaviour if they perceive that a majority of others engage in that behaviour (descriptive norm; DN). However, norms only influence behaviour if the information is salient to the individual. While norms have been examined in exercise, little attention has been paid to salience. One potential method to enhance the salience of normative messages involves outlining the benefits of engaging in exercise (i.e., positive outcome expectations; Bandura, 1986). The purpose of this study was to examine the interaction between DNs and positive outcome expectations (OE) on exercise behaviour during a final exam period. Regularly active undergraduate students (N=74) were randomly assigned to receive one of four messages, which included both a DN (how many students reported being active; high=63% vs low=13%) and a positive OE (those who exercise during exams experience enhanced academic performance; high=90% vs low=10%). Activity during the exams was self-reported retrospectively (MAQ, Kriska et al., 1990). Results from a 2X2 ANCOVA, controlling for initial physical activity levels, revealed a significant interaction, F(1,64)=4.17, p=.04. Post-hoc analyses indicated that when the DN was high, those who received a high positive OE reported greater exercise compared to those who received a low positive OE (p=.01, estimated Cohen's d=0.85). In line with focus theory, exercise during the exam period was highest for those who received a message that many others had been active during previous exams, and the norm information had been made salient (high positive OE).

Acknowledgments: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada