What are social norms?
Social norms are collectively held beliefs about what kind of behavior is appropriate in a given situation. They range from specific customs—for example, the Western custom of shaking hands with somebody when you meet them for the first time—to more general rules that govern behavior and influence our understanding of other people.
Where this bias occurs
Let’s say you’re out walking, drinking a take-out coffee as you go. The neighborhood you’re in is a little bit run-down, and there’s a lot of litter on the ground near you. When you finish your coffee, you toss it onto the ground instead of finding a garbage can, because clearly everybody else does it in this area.
Social norms are usually useful things to have—these give us roadmaps for all kinds of social situations, and provide a common foundation for members of a given culture or society to base their interactions on. However, social norms can also be exploited to manipulate people’s behavior—for example, by companies or salespeople trying to persuade potential customers to buy something. Common sales tactics, such as the “door-in-the-face” technique, are designed to leverage social norms to elicit the desired behavior from somebody.
In some situations, our tendency to follow social norms can veer into conformity, leading us to behave in harmful ways, or holding us back from taking action. The desire to “fit in,” and to avoid being the one who goes against the grain, can stifle dissenting opinions, and give rise to pluralistic ignorance, where we don’t realize many other people privately disagree with something, or hold a different attitude than the majority.
Why it happens
When social psychologists and behavioral scientists talk about social norms, they are usually less interested in specific cultural practices (like handshakes) than they are in broad tendencies in human behavior. A lot of research in this area has explored normative influence on people’s actions—in other words, how people’s behavior is influenced by the behavior of others around them. These studies have shown that people are often swayed by simply observing how others act, even when they haven’t been told to act in a specific way.
One study, conducted by Elliot Aronson and Michael O’Leary in the 1980s, investigated whether social norms affected students’ water consumption. At the time, Aronson and O’Leary were at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where drought is a recurrent problem. The university had put signage in campus shower rooms asking students to conserve water by turning off the shower while they soaped up. Despite the signs, only 6% of students were following this request. So the researchers recruited a few male students to participate in an experiment.
One student, the role model, entered the shower room, turned on the shower, and waited until he heard somebody else come in. At that point, the role model turned off the shower to soap up, as the sign instructed. When the role model finished his shower and exited the room, another student, the observer, would enter, to see whether or not the other student had followed suit. The researchers found that 49% of students followed the behavior of the role model—and when a second role model was added, 67% conformed.
Beyond the general tendency for people to act in the same way others do, there are a few specific norms that often guide people’s behavior (at least in Western societies, where most of the relevant research has been conducted), such as the norm of reciprocity—the fact that we usually feel compelled to return the favor when somebody else does something nice for us.
In one experiment demonstrating the power of reciprocity, participants were told that the study was about “cognitive perceptual skills,” and were given various tasks to complete. At some point during the experiment, a confederate—somebody posing as a participant who was actually in on the experiment—got up to use the restroom. For half of the participants, she came back with a bottle of water, as a favor. Later, the confederate asked the participant if they would be willing to complete a survey for a research project, giving them a copy of the survey and telling them where they could go to drop it off. Participants who had received a water bottle from the confederate were significantly more likely to fill out the survey, returning the favor.
It’s clear that social norms can have a strong influence on our behavior. But why is this the case? In situations where we’re less familiar with what’s going on, and we feel less certain about how we’re supposed to act, we might follow the behaviors of others simply because it’s our best bet. But most of the time, our adherence to social norms has more to do with evolutionary pressures, and with our desire to see ourselves in a certain light.
We have evolved to crave acceptance
One of the strongest drivers of human behavior is our need for belonging. Humans are social creatures, and there’s an important reason why: in prehistoric times, there was no other way to survive. In a harsh and unforgiving ancient environment, it was crucial to maintain good relationships with others, to be part of a collective. Operating as a group allowed humans to hunt larger animals, better defend themselves from predators or enemies, share food and resources with one another, and more. The individuals who survived long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation were most likely those who had close ties with the rest of their tribute.
In the modern age, we may no longer need the help of our comrades to bring down a woolly mammoth, but our brains still retain the neural hardwiring of our ancestors. The need for belonging, and the desire for closeness with others, is considered to be a fundamental human motivation. Social connection is so integral to our existence that a lack of it is detrimental to our physical health: in one meta-analysis that reviewed the findings of 148 studies on social isolation and mortality, researchers found that people strong social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival.
By following social norms, we avoid ruffling any feathers and risking rejection by others. Some specific norms, such as the norm of reciprocity, also seem to exist specifically to enhance our relationships with other people, and to create a sense of unity.
We want to protect our self-concept
Another fundamental human need, alongside belongingness, is the need to maintain a positive image of ourselves. One way to do this is to keep our behavior consistent with the norms and values that we gradually internalize as we grow up.
As we’re maturing, we learn the norms of our society both through observation and through direct reinforcement: certain behaviors are rewarded, while others are punished. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have a firm set of values, and a particular idea of how a “good person” behaves. And since we all want to see ourselves as good people, we often hold ourselves to the standards set by our personal norms—the norms we’ve internalized—in order to protect our own self-concept.
There is experimental evidence to back up this idea. In a 1991 study, researchers had participants fill out a questionnaire that assessed how strong their attitudes were about littering. They then had them complete a task while researchers monitored their heart rate and their skin conductance response (how much they were sweating), which required putting a special paste on one of their palms. While participants did the tasks, they were also looking at a TV monitor, which either showed an image of themselves doing the task (the “internal focus” group), or a series of geometric shapes (the “external focus” group).
After the task was finished, the participants were told they could leave, and they were given a piece of paper towel to remove the paste from their hands. What the participants didn’t realize is that the researchers would be checking to see whether they littered, by dropping the paper towel in the stairwell outside the experiment room. The results showed that, for people who had a strong personal norm against littering, being in the internal focus condition significantly decreased the amount of littering, whereas for people who didn’t really care about litter to begin with, it didn’t have much of an effect. Why? The researchers argue that seeing themselves on a TV screen made people more aware of their self-concepts, and made them more likely to act in a way that was consistent with their internalized norms and values.
Why it is important
Following social norms is not necessarily a bad thing—in fact, having shared norms is important to promote a sense of social cohesion between members of a society or culture. That said, following social norms can sometimes hold us back if it makes us afraid to stand out, and they can blind us to the variety of opinions and attitudes that people actually hold.
Norms can be exploited
Our habit of adhering to certain social norms is easily taken advantage of by people trying to persuade us to act in a certain way—especially people looking to sell us something. The “door-in-the-face” technique is one example of a sales tactic that capitalizes on social norms, in this case the norm of reciprocity. This technique involves starting off by asking somebody for an extreme favor, and then, when that favor is refused, following it up with a much smaller one. For example, in one study, researchers approached people and asked them if they’d be willing to commit to two years of volunteering at a juvenile detention center. After they were turned down, they pulled back and asked people if they’d instead consider committing to a single volunteer session.
People are more likely to agree to the second request because they feel like the other party has made a concession for them, and they are inclined to reciprocate. Of course, when salespeople use this trick, they haven’t actually conceded anything; this was the plan all along. Being aware of the role of social norms in marketing can help to avoid being suckered using strategies like the door-in-the-face technique.
Conformity can compromise decision making
There is a fine line between norm-following behavior and conformity. Although both stem from some of the same causes, there is a distinction between them: whereas “normative” behavior simply involves acting the same way other people do, conformity happens when somebody acts differently in a group than they would if they were on their own, such as when somebody endorses an opinion that they actually disagree with.
The most famous demonstration of conformity is a series of studies known as the Asch experiments, which demonstrated that people sometimes conform to a group’s judgment—even that judgment is unambiguously, obviously wrong. When people came in to participate in Asch’s study, they sat down in a room full of other people who they believed were also participants. In fact, everybody else was a confederate. Asch then showed the group a straight line (line X), next to three other lines. The group’s job was to pick which of the three lines with closest in length to X. Sounds ridiculously easy—except that, much to the confusion of the actual participants, everybody else in the group consistently chose the wrong line. The result was that around 35% of people conformed, and agreed with their group’s incorrect choice.
There are times when conformity is useful: having a group consensus can help us be more effective and get things done more quickly.6 But it can also stifle dissenting voices. This can end up interfering with group decision making processes, when group members don’t want to risk rejection by sharing a different viewpoint.
Norms give us false ideas about what other people think
When most people conform to a social norm, we tend to assume that everybody else agrees with that norm. This gives rise to a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance: when people privately hold an attitude or belief that’s different from the norm, but continue to publicly follow the norm because they believe they’re the only one who feels this way. This can create a sense of pressure to follow the crowd for fear of being rejected, when in fact, others might be perfectly accepting of alternative opinions.
In one study illustrating pluralistic ignorance, researchers at Princeton asked students about their comfort with drinking alcohol and their beliefs about the average student’s comfort level. They found that people systematically believed that others students were more comfortable with alcohol than they were. In other words, everybody believed they were alone in having less interest in alcohol than the culture demanded.
Misperceiving reality like this can end up having harmful consequences. For instance, in this study, male students apparently dealt with this gap in attitudes by increasing the amount of alcohol they drank, while female students became more alienated from the university as time went by. If people felt less constrained by social norms, and more students were willing to publicly say how they felt, both of these outcomes could have been avoided, because students could easily have found somebody who shared their opinion.
How to avoid it
It’s often more comfortable to go along with the behavior of others than it is to challenge it. To avoid the more pernicious aspects of following social norms, awareness of them is a good place to start—but it may not be enough in the moment, when the chips are down. Here are some specific strategies that you can use to lessen the power of social norms.
Take some time before returning a favor
Because of the norm of reciprocity, any scenario where somebody is trying to make you feel as if you’re indebted to then has the potential to influence your behavior. However, research shows that this feeling of obligation fades over time. In one study, people were given an opportunity to return a favor either five minutes or one week after initially being given a small gift. By the time one week had elapsed, the norm of reciprocity had more or less disappeared.
Wherever possible—especially if the favor you feel like you need to return was done for you by a salesperson, or anybody else who stands to gain something by manipulating you—try to take some time before acting on the impulse to reciprocate. This helps to see the situation in a clearer light, and provides a chance to ask yourself whether you really owe anything to the other party.
Red-teaming is a strategy for group decision making that involves designating somebody to play an adversarial role, challenging and questioning the prevailing opinion to help the group see weaknesses in its own plans.12 Inviting this kind of feedback is hugely value to avoid conformity, because it provides a sort of cover for people who don’t share the dominant viewpoint who may be afraid to speak out otherwise.
Practice being unconventional
For most of us, going against the grain isn’t easy, and can provoke a lot of anxiety. To deal with this, one article in the Harvard Business Review recommends practicing nonconformity in small ways, in order to build up a tolerance for being the odd one out. Small gestures, liking passing on dessert when everyone else is partaking, or keeping your own workplace clean even if everyone else’s is messy, can help get you accustomed to resisting the pull of “normative” behavior.
How it all started
One of the earliest experiments on social norms and conformity was conducted by Muzafer Sherif in 1936. In this study, Sherif showed that people’s perceptions of objects (or at least, how they reported their perceptions) was influenced by what others were saying.1,10 Later, after World War II and the Holocaust, social psychologists started to take a very strong interest in social norms and conformity, hoping to understand why so many German people had gone along with the systematic murder of so many people. This gave rise to some of the best-known studies in social psychology, including the Asch experiments and the Milgram experiment.
Example 1 – Using social norms to save energy
Social norms can encourage people to improve their behavior if they feel like they’re not measuring up to others, but they can also do the opposite: make people feel like they have a free pass to slack off if they’ve been above-average up until now. This is known as a boomerang effect. `
In one study, researchers wanted to know whether they could use social norms to persuade people to conserve more energy. To do this, they sent households messages that contained information about descriptive norms—in other words, they told them whether they were doing better or worse at saving energy, compared to the other houses around them. For households that started off doing not-so-well, this message encouraged them to do better. But for households who save more energy than their neighbors, the researchers found a boomerang effect: their water conservation habits got worse.
The next question: how can we deal with this boomerang? To answer this, the researchers also tried sending letters that included a second kind of information: an injunctive norm, or a message indicating social approval or disapproval. If households were consuming less energy than average, they got a smiley face; and if they were consuming more energy than average, they got a sad face. While the addition of a cartoon smiley face might seem like a trivial thing, it worked to change people’s behavior: the boomerang effect disappeared when people also received an injunctive norm. It just goes to show that the pull of social approval is a powerful thing.
Example 2 – Broken windows theory
You may have heard of “broken windows” policing: a theory of law enforcement that says that cracking down on low-level offenses can help to prevent more serious crimes. This policy was originally written about in The Atlantic by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling, and was based on a 1969 study by the social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. According to the Atlantic piece’s authors, Zimbardo had shown in his research that, when a car had one of its windows smashed, people became much more likely to vandalize it, because the broken window signalled a social norm of damaging property.
The problem with all of this is that it’s based on a misinterpretation of Zimbardo’s original work. As part of Zimbardo’s research, he and his students had planned to slightly damage a car in order to encourage would-be vandals. But they “got carried away,” and ended up trashing the vehicle completely. In other words, the researchers themselves laid waste to the car—not random passersby who saw a broken window and immediately went ballistic. And although other social psychology studies have affirmed broken windows theory in the decades since it was first coined, the methodology and statistical analyses behind those studies have been criticized as “mediocre” by some researchers.
Even though social norms can strongly influence us, their power only goes so far. We should be skeptical and cautious about the rhetoric around social norms, especially when people use claims like broken windows theory to justify harmful forms of law enforcement.
What it is
Social norms are unspoken rules about how people “should” behave in certain situations. We internalize social norms as we grow up, and we infer them from other people’s behavior. The instinct to follow social norms can have a powerful effect on our actions.
Why it happens
We have evolved to crave human contact and fear rejection; following social norms improves our chances of being accepted by other people. Upholding norms can also allow us to enhance our own self-concepts.
Example 1 – Norms and energy conservation
When researchers sent notices to households with a descriptive norm about their energy usage, households who had been doing below-average improved, but those who had been overperforming showed a “boomerang effect” and got worse at saving energy. However, when the researchers added in a smiley face or a sad face to signal approval or disapproval, the boomerang effect went away.
Example 2 – Broken windows theory and its problems
Broken windows theory has informed policing in America for decades, but it’s based on a misrepresentation of some research by Philip Zimbardo. Social norms are certainly powerful, but not as powerful as some advocates of broken windows policing would have you believe.
How to avoid it
Taking time before returning a favor can help us to avoid being exploited via the norm of reciprocity. To stop social norms from affecting our decision making, building criticism into the process is useful. Practising nonconformity can also help people get used to being the odd one out.