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Brief 57: How Media Influence Social Norms: Evidence from Mexico

Media influence can operate through two channels. The first is an individual channel, through which media provides information that persuades individuals to revise their beliefs. The second is a social channel, where media, because of its public nature, also informs people what others are learning. The author combines a field experiment with a natural experiment in Mexico to examine the effect of a radio program about violence against women when transmitted privately (i.e., individual channel) versus when transmitted publicly (i.e., social channel). The study finds that the social channel increased rejection of violence against women and increased support for gender equality, while there was no evidence that the individual channel influenced social norms.

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Category: Conflict and Violence

Tags: Mexico, violence, information, gender equality

Date of Publication: Tuesday, February 20, 2018

EGAP Researcher: Eric Arias

Geographical Region: North America

Research Question:

What are the mechanisms through which the media changes social norms?

Preparer: Tanu Kumar



The study took place in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca, Mexico from May to June 2013. The community is small, rural, indigenous, and, like many other communities in Mexico, was suffering from issues surrounding violence against women and gender inequality. It is also culturally homogenous and shares characteristics with other rural municipalities in Mexico. The author worked with a regional non-governmental partner to produce an hour-long audio soap opera to be listened to by members of the community. The soap opera was embedded in the local context and designed to challenge gender role norms and discourage violence against women by describing the fictional evolution of a violent husband. Importantly, the language in the soap opera did not simply discourage violence against women, but rather emphasized that the residents of Quialana believed that violence against women was wrong. 

Research Design:

The research design combined two sources of variation to create four treatment groups in a factorial design (Table 1). First, the soap opera was broadcast via a community loudspeaker only reaching a portion of the community due to topographical conditions (the natural experiment component). Households within the loudspeaker’s reach were also randomly invited by the regional NGO to listen to the soap opera program at a community meeting, with the remaining households able to hear the broadcast at their homes regardless. The loudspeaker group was thus split into those who could hear the public broadcast and those who were invited to listen to it with other community members, thus testing different aspects of the social mechanism. This design specifically allowed the author to explore whether a public transmission of the soap opera was sufficient to influence norms without any other social interactions, and whether creating certainty about common knowledge though face-to-face interactions with community members could enhance the effects of the social mechanism. Individuals outside the loudspeaker’s reach were randomly and privately invited to listen to the soap opera using an audio CD to test the individual mechanism. The remaining households in that area formed a pure control group. Sample sizes are detailed in Table 1.

Table 1. Groups created by the research design. The table details how members of each treatment group listened to the soap opera. 

A post-intervention household survey was used to collect key outcomes, namely personal beliefs about violence against women, perceptions of the community’s beliefs about violence, as well as expectations about violence against women in the future, the education of children about gender equality values, and potential reactions to witnessing violence. Respondents were also asked if they would sign a petition asking for the creation of a support group for women who experienced domestic violence. Both male and female heads of households were interviewed when available.


Those invited to the community meeting (social condition) were more likely than those invited to listen to the audio CD (individual condition) to state that violence against women was a recurring problem, that it was perceived to be not socially acceptable in Quialana, and that they planned to educate their children about gender equality. They were also more likely to react to a violent event and more likely to sign the petition. However, they were also more likely to believe that violence would increase in the future. This could be due to increased awareness of violence, or an expectation that women would stand up for their rights, potentially creating more violence from males. The author also tested the effect of listening to the soap opera in the loudspeaker only, meeting only, and loudspeaker meeting treatments relative to the pure control. The effects of the community meeting and loudspeaker conditions relative to the control condition were similar to community meeting vs. audio CD results. The author detected no effect of listening to the audio CD relative to the control condition. 

Policy Implications:

The results imply that media influence can be strongly driven by a social channel, or citizens’ beliefs about the beliefs of their peers. Importantly, private delivery of media information had no discernible effects. This suggests that information campaigns ought to weight public delivery more than private delivery. The study also suggests that public delivery can be sufficient to generate an effect, as more costly face-to-face social interactions did not induce additional effects in this case. Lastly, the treatment effects on pessimistic expectations about the future emphasize the importance of implementing interventions with clear institutional mechanisms through which individuals can act upon their updated beliefs.