Behavioural science principles: social norms

Published by Emily Cowan on

Behavioural science principles: social norms

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Are you a lone wolf or part of the pack?

I’m sure most of us would like to think of ourselves as free thinkers and individuals on our own self-directed paths, regardless of what other people are doing. But are we really or do we follow the social norms of the crowd?

Behavioural science shows that people are far more likely to perform a behaviour when other people are doing it too — whether that behaviour is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We tend to do what those around us are already doing because we see it as ‘the norm’ (Cialdini, 2007).

It seems like common sense to copy a behaviour that has a clear benefit or makes logical sense. For example, when noticing other people being quiet in a library, we’re more likely to quickly and automatically do it ourselves (Dolan et al., 2010). It’s obvious why that’s the case — people are quietly reading and concentrating, and it’s likely that we are going there for the same reasons.

Where it gets interesting is seeing the power of social norms in action when it comes to completely illogical or irrational behaviours. 

As a child, I used to walk home from primary school with some friends who would avoid stepping on triple drains. Why? I still don’t know. But I followed their lead, avoiding all the triple drains on our walk home each day.

This superstition must have been a popular one, as I know many full-grown adults — myself embarrassingly included — who will swerve around a triple drain out of habit. But does this go beyond weird superstitions picked up in childhood?

Would you stand at the beep?

One social experiment conducted by Brain Games for National Geographic tested out susceptibility to conform to social norms. They filled a doctor’s waiting room with actors before an unsuspecting woman entered for her appointment. 

After she sat down, a beep sounded. At this beep, all the other people in the room stood up, for no apparent reason, then sat down again. It only took the repetition of this three times before the woman began to copy the behaviour, standing up and sitting down again at each beep.

She wasn’t instructed to perform this behaviour or given any explanation as to why the other people were doing it. Nor was she rewarded for it. She simply did it… because everyone else was doing it.

Eventually all the other participants left the waiting room, but she continued to stand at the beep. As new people entered the waiting room, they began to copy her behaviour too, despite none of the initial participants being there to influence that behaviour.

Herd mentality

It makes sense that conforming to social norms is so prevalent in humans. We’ve survived by not eating the berries that no one else would eat, and not leaving the community to wander off alone into areas where we may become prey.

It can be incredibly uncomfortable to go against the group. It triggers our instinctive feeling that the majority must be right, right?! Not always. The dark side of this is that people can be led to commit atrocities out of conformity, being susceptible to groupthink and too afraid to speak out or act differently to others, even when they know it’s wrong. We see this pattern repeated throughout history time after time.

It’s not all bad, though. Social norms also provide order and predictability — without which, life would be even more confusing than it often already is. It’s normal to wear a swimming costume to the beach, but not so normal to wear it to the supermarket. You can dance wildly in a club, but it might be weird if you did that in your local coffee shop. You might grunt loudly in the gym while lifting weights, but not make the same sounds while working in the office. We all play by these unspoken rules all the time.

BAD social norms

So, how can we use this knowledge of social norms for good?

What we don’t do when we want to encourage a certain behaviour is to say that most people are doing the wrong thing, as this backfires when you understand social norms.

When GP surgeries highlight the large number of patients that miss their appointments, they inadvertently signal that this is socially acceptable (Martin et al., 2012). If everyone’s missing their GP appointments, then it doesn’t seem so bad to just not turn up, without bothering to cancel. Communicating the ‘wrong’ behaviour as the norm is a very common mistake that psychologists call “The Big Mistake” (Cialdini, 2007).

However, social disapproval can discourage poor behaviour in some circumstances. This can be particularly useful for compliance procedures where the minority of people don’t act in line with policy or cut corners. If this is the case, you can consider calling it out.

Understanding social norms explains why you don’t even necessarily have to fully convince someone why they should perform a certain behaviour to make them more likely to perform it themselves (although outlining the benefits helps, of course).

Which of the following statements would make you more likely to complete a training?

  1. a) 98% of your colleagues completed this training.
  2. b) 12% of your colleagues completed this training.

I’m guessing you would be more likely to complete the training with a), the first statement. Why would you bother doing something if no one else is? But if everyone else is doing something that you’re not, that can be disconcerting. I don’t even need to tell you how amazing the training is to produce this FOMO (fear of missing out)!

The point is, we should be aware of this susceptibility in our psychology. We are social beings, and deep down most of us are scared to stand out as being and acting differently to the norm (even if in theory we think it’s cool to do so). The immense power of this can be used for both positive and negative intentions. In fact, it’s highly effective when it comes to behavioural change.

So, I’ll continue to avoid stepping on triple drains for absolutely no reason at all and try to use the power of social norms in learning to encourage more rational behaviour elsewhere.

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