Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Norms and Attitudes about Being an Active Bystander: Support for Telling Adults about Seeing Knives or Guns at School among Greater London Youth


A detailed understanding of the factors associated with support among youth for reporting a knife or gun at school to an adult is essential to inform violence prevention initiatives. However, no studies have empirically assessed attitudes about support for reporting among secondary school students in Greater London nor perceived norms about such support among peers. Thus, this study explores whether students misperceive peer norms about support for telling adults about seeing weapons at school. Anonymous surveys were completed by 7401 youth (52% female; 43% White; mean age 11.8 years) in school years 4–11 in 45 school cohorts in a greater London borough between 2007 and 2012. Students reported both personal support about reporting weapons to several categories of adults and whether they perceived most other students at their school to support reporting weapons to adults in each category. Most students (64–78% on average) in most cohorts personally thought that students should report seeing a weapon at school to head teachers, police/security guard, teachers/counselors, and parent/other adult relatives. However, 34–44% of students erroneously thought that the majority of their peers did not support reporting to these adults. Perceived norms predicted personal support for reporting, adjusting for the prevalence of actual support at one’s school and other factors. Pervasive norm misperceptions about reporting may contribute to a less safe environment.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1


  1. Ajzen, I. (2001). Nature and operation of attitudes. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 27–58.

  2. Ajzen, I. (2005). Attitudes, personality, and behavior. England: McGraw-Hill Education.

  3. Allen, G., & Audickas, L. (2018). Knife crime in England and Wales. Briefing paper (Vol. SN4304). House of Commons Library.

  4. Barrett, K. L., Jennings, W. G., & Lynch, M. J. (2012). The relation between youth fear and avoidance of crime in school and academic experiences. Journal of School Violence, 11(1), 1–20.

  5. Bergquist, M., & Nilsson, A. (2019). The DOs and DON’Ts in social norms: a descriptive don’t-norm increases conformity. Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, 3, 158–166.

  6. Blair, G., Littman, R., & Paluck, E. L. (2019). Motivating the adoption of new community-minded behaviors: an empirical test in Nigeria. Science Advances, 5(3), eaau5175

  7. Brechwald, W. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Beyond homophily: a decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 166–179.

  8. Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015–1026.

  9. Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, G. LIndzey, (Eds) (1998). Social influence: social norms, conformity and compliance. The Handbook of Social Psychology. 4th edn. Vol. 1 and 2. 151–192. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

  10. Compernolle, E. L. (2017). Disentangling perceived norms: predictors of unintended pregnancy during the transition to adulthood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 79(4), 1076–1095.

  11. Cornell, D. (2015). Our schools are safe: challenging the misperception that schools are dangerous places. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(3), 217–220.

  12. Cotter, K. L., & Smokowski, P. R. (2016). Perceived peer delinquency and externalizing behavior among rural youth: the role of descriptive norms and internalizing symptoms. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(3), 520–531.

  13. Daniels, J. A., Volungis, A., Pshenishny, E., Gandhi, P., Winkler, A., & Cramer, D. P., et al. (2009). A qualitative investigation of averted school shooting rampages. The Counseling Psychologist.

  14. DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., & Simonsen, N. R., et al. (2006). A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 67(6), 868–879.

  15. Dempsey, R. C., McAlaney, J., & Bewick, B. M. (2018). A critical appraisal of the social norms approach as an interventional strategy for health-related behavior and attitude change. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(2180).

  16. Dempsey, R. C., McAlaney, J., Helmer, S. M., Pischke, C. R., Akvardar, Y., & Bewick, B. M., et al. (2016). Normative perceptions of cannabis use among European university students: associations of perceived peer use and peer attitudes with personal use and attitudes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 77(5), 740–748.

  17. Geber, S., Baumann, E., Czerwinski, F., & Klimmt, C. (2019). The effects of social norms among peer groups on risk behavior: a multilevel approach to differentiate perceived and collective norms. Communication Research.

  18. Geber, S., Baumann, E., & Klimmt, C. (2017). Where do norms come from? Peer communication as a factor in normative social influences on risk behavior. Communication Research.

  19. Helmer, S. M., Mikolajczyk, R. T., McAlaney, J., Vriesacker, B., Van Hal, G., & Akvardar, Y., et al. (2014). Illicit substance use among university students from seven European countries: a comparison of personal and perceived peer use and attitudes towards illicit substance use. Preventive Medicine, 67, 204–209.

  20. Hemenway, D., Vriniotis, M., Johnson, R. M., Miller, M., & Azrael, D. (2011). Gun carrying by high school students in Boston, MA: does overestimation of peer gun carrying matter? Journal of Adolescence, 34(5), 997–1003.

  21. Kollerová, L., Yanagida, T., Mazzone, A., Soukup, P., & Strohmeier, D. (2018). “They think that I should defend”: effects of peer and teacher injunctive norms on defending victimized classmates in early adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(11), 2424–2439.

  22. Lapinski, M. K., & Rimal, R. N. (2006). An explication of social norms. Communication Theory, 15(2), 127–147.

  23. Larimer, M. E., Neighbors, C., Lostutter, T. W., Whiteside, U., Cronce, J. M., & Kaysen, D., et al. (2012). Brief motivational feedback and cognitive behavioral interventions for prevention of disordered gambling: a randomized clinical trial. Addiction, 107(6), 1148–1158.

  24. Lehne, G., Zeeb, H., Pischke, C. R., Mikolajczyk, R., Bewick, B. M., & McAlaney, J., et al. (2018). Personal and perceived peer use and attitudes towards use of non-prescribed prescription sedatives and sleeping pills among university students in seven European countries. Addictive Behaviors, 87, 17–23.

  25. Lerman, K., Yan, X., & Wu, X.-Z. (2016). The “Majority Illusion” in social networks. PLoS ONE, 11(2), e0147617.

  26. Lewis, M. A., Patrick, M. E., Litt, D. M., Atkins, D. C., Kim, T., & Blayney, J. A., et al. (2014). Randomized controlled trial of a web-delivered personalized normative feedback intervention to reduce alcohol-related risky sexual behavior among college students. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(3), 429–440.

  27. Lewis, M. A., Rhew, I. C., Fairlie, A. M., Swanson, A., Anderson, J., & Kaysen, D. (2018). Evaluating personalized feedback intervention framing with a randomized controlled trial to reduce young adult alcohol-related sexual risk taking. Prevention Science.

  28. Linkenbach, J., & Perkins, H. W. (2003). Most of us are tobacco free: an eight-month social norms campaign reducing youth initiation of smoking in Montana. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: a handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  29. Madfis, E. (2014). Averting school rampage: student intervention amid a persistent code of silence. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 12(3), 229–249.

  30. McAlaney, J., Helmer, S. M., Stock, C., Vriesacker, B., Hal, G. V., & Dempsey, R. C., et al. (2015). Personal and perceived peer use of and attitudes toward alcohol among university and college students in seven EU countries: project SNIPE. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 76(3), 430–438.

  31. Mennicke, A., Kennedy, S. C., Gromer, J., & Klem-O’Connor, M. (2018). Evaluation of a social norms sexual violence prevention marketing campaign targeted toward college men: attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors over 5 years. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

  32. Middleton, J., & Shepherd, J. (2018). Preventing violent crime. BMJ, 361, k1967

  33. Minty, S., Hollingworth, S., Allen, K., & Holden, C. (2010). British young people’s understanding of crime and violence in the local context: reality or myth? In P. Cunningham & N. Fretwell (Eds), Lifelong Learning and Active Citizenship (pp. 22–32). London: CiCe.

  34. Montano, D. E., & Kasprzyk, D. (2015). Theory of reasoned action, theory of planned behavior, and the integrated behavioral model. In K. Glanz, B. K. Rimer & K. Viswanath (Eds), Health behavior: Theory, research and practice. 5th edn (pp. 95–124). San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

  35. Mulla, M. M., Witte, T. H., Richardson, K., Hart, W., Kassing, F. L., & Coffey, C. A., et al. (2018). The causal influence of perceived social norms on intimate partner violence perpetration: converging cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental support for a social disinhibition model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(4), 652–668.

  36. Mulvey, K. L., & Killen, M. (2016). Keeping quiet just wouldn’t be right: children’s and adolescents’ evaluations of challenges to peer relational and physical aggression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(9), 1824–1835.

  37. Neighbors, C., Larimer, M. E., & Lewis, M. A. (2004). Targeting misperceptions of descriptive drinking norms: efficacy of a computer-delivered personalized normative feedback intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(3), 434–447.

  38. Neighbors, C., Lewis, M. A., Atkins, D. C., Jensen, M. M., Walter, T., & Fossos, N., et al. (2010). Efficacy of web-based personalized normative feedback: a two-year randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(6), 898–911.

  39. Neighbors, C., Rodriguez, L. M., Rinker, D. V., Gonzales, R. G., Agana, M., & Tackett, J. L., et al. (2015). Efficacy of personalized normative feedback as a brief intervention for college student gambling: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(3), 500.

  40. Paluck, E. L., & Shepherd, H. (2012). The salience of social referents: a field experiment on collective norms and harassment behavior in a school social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(6), 899–915.

  41. Paluck, E. L., Shepherd, H., & Aronow, P. M. (2016). Changing climates of conflict: a social network experiment in 56 schools. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  42. Pedersen, E. R., Parast, L., Marshall, G. N., Schell, T. L., & Neighbors, C. (2017). A randomized controlled trial of a web-based, personalized normative feedback alcohol intervention for young-adult veterans. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 85(5), 459–470.

  43. Perkins, H. W. (2003a). The emergence and evolution of the social norms approach to substance abuse prevention. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: a handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  44. Perkins, H. W. (Ed.) (2003b). The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: a handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  45. Perkins, H. W. (2007). Misperceptions of peer drinking norms in Canada: another look at the “reign of error” and its consequences among college students. Addictive Behaviors, 32(11), 2645–2656.

  46. Perkins, H. W. (2014). Misperception is reality: the “Reign of Error” about peer risk behaviour norms among youth and young adults. In M. Xenitidou, & B. Edmonds (Eds), The complexity of social norms (pp. 11–36). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

  47. Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2012). Student-athletes’ misperceptions of male and female peer drinking norms: a multi-site investigation of the “Reign of Error”. Journal of College Student Development, 53(3), 367–382.

  48. Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: a research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14(5), 703–722.

  49. Perkins, H. W., Haines, M. P., & Rice, R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: a nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms and student alcohol misuse. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 66(4), 470–478.

  50. Perkins, H. W., Linkenbach, J. W., Lewis, M. A., & Neighbors, C. (2010). Effectiveness of social norms media marketing in reducing drinking and driving: a statewide campaign. Addictive Behaviors, 35(10), 866–874.

  51. Perkins, H. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2018). Using the social norms approach to promote health and reduce risk among college students. In Promoting behavioral health and reducing risk among college students (pp. 149–166). New York, NY: Routledge.

  52. Perkins, J. M., Krezanoski, P., Takada, S., Kakuhikire, B., Batwala, V., & Tsai, A. C., et al. (2019). Social norms, misperceptions, and mosquito net use: a population-based, cross-sectional study in rural Uganda. Malaria Journal, 18(1), 189.

  53. Perkins, J. M., Nyakato, V. N., Kakuhikire, B., Mbabazi, P. K., Perkins, H. W., & Tsai, A. C., et al. (2017b). Actual versus perceived HIV testing norms, and personal HIV testing uptake: a cross-sectional, population-based study in rural Uganda. AIDS and Behavior, 22(2), 616–628.

  54. Perkins, J. M., Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2010). Peer weight norm misperception as a risk factor for being over and underweight among UK secondary school students. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 64(9), 965–971.

  55. Perkins, J. M., Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2015). Misperception of peer weight norms and its association with overweight and underweight status among adolescents. Prevention Science, 16(1), 70–79.

  56. Perkins, J. M., Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2017a). Misperceiving a code of silence: peer support for telling authorities about weapons at school among middle school and high school students in the United States. Youth & Society.

  57. Perkins, J. M., Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2018). Misperceived norms and personal sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and fruit and vegetable intake among students in the United States. Appetite, 129, 82–93.

  58. Pischke, C. R., Helmer, S. M., McAlaney, J., Bewick, B. M., Vriesacker, B., & Van Hal, G., et al. (2015). Normative misperceptions of tobacco use among university students in seven European countries: baseline findings of the ‘Social Norms Intervention for the prevention of Polydrug usE’ study. Addictive Behaviors, 51, 158–164.

  59. Pollack, W. S., Modzeleski, W., & Rooney, G. (2008). Prior knowledge of potential school-based violence: information students learn may prevent a targeted attack. U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Secret Service: Washington, DC.

  60. Reid, A. E., & Aiken, L. S. (2013). Correcting injunctive norm misperceptions motivates behavior change: a randomized controlled sun protection intervention. Health Psychology, 32(5), 551–560.

  61. Rice, E. L., & Klein, W. M. P. (2019). Interactions among perceived norms and attitudes about health-related behaviors in U.S. adolescents. Health Psychology, 38(3), 268–275.

  62. Sandstrom, M. J., Makover, H., & Bartini, M. (2013). Social context of bullying: do misperceptions of group norms influence children’s responses to witnessed episodes? Social Influence, 8(2–3), 196–215.

  63. Simons-Morton, B., Haynie, D., Bible, J., & Liu, D. (2018). Prospective associations of actual and perceived descriptive norms with drinking among emerging adults. Substance Use & Misuse, 1–11.

  64. Stallings, R., & Hall, J. C. (2019). Averted targeted school killings from 1900-2016. Criminal Justice Studies, 32(3), 222–238.

  65. Sundaram, V. (2016). “You can try, but you won’t stop it. It’ll always be there”: youth perspectives on violence and prevention in schools. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(4), 652–676.

  66. Tankard, M. E., & Paluck, E. L. (2016). Norm perception as a vehicle for social change. Social Issues and Policy Review, 10(1), 181–211.

  67. Thomas, W. I., & Thomas, D. S. (1928). The child in America. New York, NY: Knopf.

  68. Torjesen, I. (2018). Can public health strategies tackle London’s rise in fatal violence? BMJ, 361, k1578–k1578.

  69. Turner, J., Perkins, H. W., & Bauerle, J. (2008). Declining negative consequences related to alcohol misuse among students exposed to a social norms marketing intervention on a college campus. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 85–94.

  70. Vossekuil, B., Fein, R. A., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the safe school initative: implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, DC.

  71. Vulliamy, P., Faulkner, M., Kirkwood, G., West, A., O’Neill, B., & Griffiths, M. P., et al. (2018). Temporal and geographic patterns of stab injuries in young people: a retrospective cohort study from a UK major trauma centre. BMJ open, 8(10), e023114.

  72. Walsh, S. D., Molcho, M., Craig, W., Harel-Fisch, Y., Huynh, Q., & Kukaswadia, A., et al. (2013). Physical and emotional health problems experienced by youth engaged in physical fighting and weapon carrying. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e56403.

  73. Young, J. T. N., & Weerman, F. M. (2013). Delinquency as a consequence of misperception: overestimation of friends’ delinquent behavior and mechanisms of social influence. Social Problems, 60(3), 334–356.

  74. Zapp, D., Buelow, R., Soutiea, L., Berkowitz, A., & DeJong, W. (2018). Exploring the potential campus-level impact of online universal sexual assault prevention education. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Download references


The authors would like to thank Luke Roberts for his extensive collaboration in the collection of local school data for this study.

Authors’ Contributions

J.M.P. conceived of the study, participated in its design, drafted the manuscript, performed statistical analysis, interpreted data, and lead manuscript revisions. H.W.P. conceived of the study, participated in its design, conducted survey administration and coordination, participated in data interpretation and manuscript revisions. D.W.C. conceived of the study, participated in its design, conducted survey administration and coordination, and participated in manuscript revisions. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


JMP acknowledges salary support from NIH K01MH115811.

Data Sharing Declaration

This manuscript’s data will not be deposited.

Author information

Correspondence to Jessica M. Perkins.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee (Hobart and William Smith Colleges Institutional Review Board case reference number 12–15) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Local schools obtained informed consent of parents or guardians for students’ participation in this study in accordance with their standard procedures in the school district.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Perkins, J.M., Perkins, H.W. & Craig, D.W. Norms and Attitudes about Being an Active Bystander: Support for Telling Adults about Seeing Knives or Guns at School among Greater London Youth. J Youth Adolescence (2019).

Download citation


  • Social norms
  • Injunctive norms
  • Peer norms
  • Weapons
  • Violence