Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Is anybody doing it? An experimental study of the effect of normative messages on intention to do physical activity

René van Bavel1*, Gabriele Esposito1 and Tom Baranowski2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Joint Research Centre, European Commission, Calle Inca Garcilaso 3, 41092 Seville, Spain

2 Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX, USA

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:778  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-778

Published: 31 July 2014



The study explores whether messages about the physical activity levels of the majority (i.e. normative messages) affect young adults' intention to engage in regular physical activity.


An experimental survey among 16 to 24 year-olds in Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania (n = 1200) was conducted in March 2013. A control group received no message; one treatment group was told that the majority was physically active (positive message); and another treatment group was told that the majority was not physically active (negative message).


Both the positive and (unexpectedly) the negative normative messages showed a significant and positive effect on intention to be physically active. There was no difference between the effects of the messages.


Normative messages affect intention, which is encouraging for public health campaigns. The effect of the positive message confirms previous findings on conformity to the norm; the effect of the negative message is unexpected and requires further research to be understood.

Physical activity; Normative messages; Health behaviour; Young adults