The Basic Idea
Although many of us often find ourselves running late in the mornings, we frequently can’t help braving the morning rush at our favorite coffee shop. In these situations, there is nothing stopping any of us from barging into the coffee shop, cutting to the front of the line and demanding that the barista get a double shot of espresso immediately. It would certainly save us time and we may avoid being late for work or school. However, imagine the potential reactions of the people in the coffeeshop. At the minimum, they would include dirty looks, and perhaps a calling out for such behavior. This is because waiting your turn, whether it is to buy a cup of coffee, get on the bus, or be seated at a restaurant, is an unspoken rule of society – a social norm.
Social norms are informal rules that guide behavior within society. Generally, they are a means of constraining behavior.1 While laws are in place to prevent crimes, social norms exist to maintain order on a smaller scale. Instead of people chaotically entering a coffee shop, forcing their way to the front and yelling their order to the barista, social norms dictate that we should stand in line and place our orders one-by-one. This system is more orderly and more efficient.
Of course, not all social norms are positive. Gender norms—the idea that behavior and expression is dictated by biological sex—are often limiting and problematic. Furthermore, because social norms are so ubiquitous and rigid, those who deviate from the norm often face consequences, which may range from mockery, to ostracization.
We internalize the social norms of our culture, many of us enforcing them and engaging in them automatically. While social norms can be useful tools for guiding our behavior and informing our decision-making, they can also be damaging. For this reason, we should learn to accept social norms only if they do more harm than good.
Where there is a society, there are social norms. Due to their prevalence, norms are a popular topic of research in the fields of sociology and social psychology.
One of the earliest studies on social norms is attributed to Muzafer Sherif. Sherif was specifically interested in conformity: when people change their behavior in order to fit into a group. Sherif’s study was conducted in the 1930’s and demonstrated how people’s reported perceptions of different stimuli were heavily influenced by the views of others around them.2
Another famous study on the power of normative behavior was conducted by psychologist Solomon Asch. Like Sherif, Asch demonstrated that people’s reported perceptions can be influenced by others. However, his studies brought another interesting, and even more troubling, finding to light.
The procedure of Asch’s studies was simple: one participant was brought into a room with a group of other people whom they believed to also be participants, but were actually confederates (people involved in the research). The participant and confederates were seated in a row and shown a target image of a straight line. They were then shown three other lines and asked to determine which of the three lines was closest in length to the target line. The researcher running the study went down the line asking each person to report their answer verbally, one by one. The real participant was seated at the end of the line, so that their response was given last. Each participant had to partake in 18 trials – in other words, they had to make judgments about 18 lines. On 12 of these trials, the confederates were told to answer incorrectly. The findings of this study showed that, on average, 32% of participants would conform with the incorrect response given by the confederates in their group on a given trial, and 72% of the participants conformed with an incorrect response at least once.
These results are even more striking: in a control study, where participants reported their responses on their own, without confederates to influence them, fewer than 1% of the participants gave an incorrect response. Asch concluded that this effect was largely the result of the participants’ desire to fit in with the group, a phenomenon now known as “normative influence”.3
An interesting line of research that has resulted from social psychologists’ interest in social norms is pluralistic ignorance: the idea that when the majority of people conform with a given norm, we tend to assume that everyone is in favor of it. Often, people will go along with a norm they privately disagree with, based on the incorrect assumption that everyone else agrees with it.
Social norms are not always a bad thing. These shared rules that exist within different cultures allow societies to function smoothly, maintaining order and enabling efficient interactions between people. However, not all norms are created equal. While some are advantageous, others can be limiting.
Although unconventional behavior can have consequences, it can also be what skyrockets people to success. The key to innovation is breaking convention; normative behavior can constrain creativity and prevent people from taking risks. What is also important to consider is the fact that norms are not set in stone. They are transient constructs that evolve over time. We look back at certain past conventions and consider them ridiculous, while at the time they were widely accepted. This idea serves as a reminder that society is constantly evolving and, while we may perceive these unspoken rules to be fixed, they are in fact evolving with us.
Deviating from the norm will always be controversial. We often gravitate towards what we know and are averse to change. We rely on predictability to make sense of the world around us. This is why it can be so upsetting to see someone break these unspoken societal rules.
The research being conducted in this area by social psychologists helps us understand the power of social norms, their potential benefits, and ways they constrain or impair our judgment. There are times when deviating from the norm is the right thing, whether it is a matter of self-expression or decision-making, such as standing up for what’s right.
The research regarding pluralistic ignorance is particularly powerful, as it brings to light the fact that, even though it feels like everyone condones a certain norm, that may not be the case.7 When people do break social convention, or speak out against problematic norms, they may find out they are less alone in their beliefs than they anticipated.
Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol consumption
A study conducted at Princeton University demonstrated the kind of detrimental consequences that pluralistic ignorance can have. In the paper, which was published in 1993, researchers Deborah A. Prentice and Dale T. Miller presented their findings that, in general, students believed themselves to be more uncomfortable with the typical college alcohol practices than their peers. This means that, while excessive alcohol consumption is a social norm of the college experience, most students were uncomfortable with it, but believed they were alone in that opinion. These students felt this way even in regard to their close friends.
What is most troubling about these findings is that male students coped with this discrepancy between their own beliefs and what they perceived as the norm by gradually changing their attitudes to align with what they thought to be the normative attitude. This may lead to them consume more alcohol than they otherwise would have, which is concerning as the excessive alcohol consumption associated with college campuses can have detrimental effects on health and wellbeing.4 This study aligns with a theory known as Social Norms Theory, which suggests that our notion of what is the norm is influenced more by what we think others believe, rather than what they actually believe.5 However, these misperceptions often go unnoticed, as questioning or deviating from social norms is considered taboo.
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We often focus on the disadvantages of social norms, such as how they stifle innovation and self-expression. As this article highlights, however, norms have the power to be widely beneficial. The author suggests that, by reframing certain adaptive behaviors as norms, people may put more effort into changing their own behaviors to align with what they view as socially desirable. For example, instead of using fear tactics to scare people into adopting healthy behaviors, public health campaigns may have more success if they attempt to frame those healthy behaviors as normative.
There is a disconnect between our actions and their consequences. While driving is linked to greenhouse gas production, we do not notice an immediate uptick in temperatures every time we get in the car. This can make changing our behavior all the more challenging. This article addresses the power of social norms in encouraging people to engage in more eco-friendly behaviors, such as reusing their towels in hotel rooms.
This article elucidates the various ways our social context impacts our decisions. Among other things, our individual behaviors can be influenced by our interactions with others, the commitments we make publicly, and, of course, social norms and peer pressure.
- Social Norms. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-norms/
- McLeod, S. (2016). What is conformity? Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/conformity.html#sherif
- See 2
- Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of personality and social psychology, 64(2), 243-256.
- LaMorte, W.W. (2019). Social Norms Theory. Behavioral Change Models. https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories7.html
- See 4
- See 4