Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Robert C. Hornik


Although the study of social influence has been a fruitful topic of inquiry in the field of communication, past research has focused almost exclusively on its consequences, and rarely asks how people construct their perceptions of social reality in the first place. This dissertation contributes to our knowledge by thoroughly examining how people form descriptive social norm perceptions in their everyday communication environment through repeated media exposure. We investigated this question with different forms of media exposure, engaged in different lines of theoretical inquiry and utilized observational and experimental methods.

The first study relied on self-report measures and examined how the effects of repeated incidental media exposure to e-cigarette use information across multiple sources may travel through interpersonal conversations and descriptive norm perceptions, and finally reach behavior decisions. We presented evidence of direct and indirect pathways with cross-sectional and longitudinal data among a nationally representative sample of youth and young adults. The second set of studies conducted online experiments to manipulate people’s exposure to repeated individual behavior cues embedded in online comments. We confirmed that people were equipped with a “quasi-statistical” sense that allowed them to automatically collect and identify the behavior choice distribution within the online comment boards, based on which they formed the behavior prevalence perceptions in the real world. The results were replicated with both e-cigarette use and Genetically Modified Food label checking behaviors. Applying similar experimental procedures, the third study comprehensively examined the exposure-norm relation with much more elaborated treatment conditions. We observed that descriptive norm perceptions responded to repeated exposure in a dose-response fashion, contingent on the size of the overall information pool.

This work addresses the underlying mechanisms of descriptive social norm perception formation and how they could be better harnessed in promoting behavior changes moving forward. Our examination of user-generated contents on news websites adds to the sparse literature on the intersection between mass and interpersonal communication processes in the context of the unique dynamics and characteristics of social perception formation in our current media landscape.

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