Dora A. Gellen
Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge
Received July 29, 2022
Revision received August 22, 2022
Published November 8, 2022
Associate Editor: Seer Li
Reviewers: Cristina Costea & Tom Metherell
Copyeditor: Frederick Morley
Citation: Gellen, D. A. (2022, November 8). Social norms: What functions do they serve?. Cambridge Journal of Human Behaviour.
Commentary: “Addiction as care? An account of personhood and norms in social anthropology”
Madeleine Anderson, Clare College, University of Cambridge.
Social norms: What functions do they serve?
ABSTRACT: Norms convey meaningful, culturally relative information about appropriate and inappropriate conduct and act as a community’s behavioural guidelines. Norms may be positive or negative, and they have the power to create social change. Social norms have diverse functions that range from promoting law and order to establishing consensus. The primary aim of this article is to discuss the various functions of social norms and emphasise their social influence and importance in social change. Additionally, this article will identify and evaluate the key strengths and limitations of psychological research in the field of social norms. The following strengths and limitations are discussed in more detail: sample size, demand characteristics, and sample bias. The overall data suggest that social norms have several key functions: establishing consensus, inducing social harmony, a source as social heuristics, and as drivers of social change. However, it is necessary to carefully evaluate each piece of research before concluding the significance of psychological findings.
KEYWORDS: social norms, function, behaviour, conformity, change
Social norms play a critical part in both everyday life and psychological research. Although there are diverse definitions for this social phenomenon, most psychologists agree that social norms are ‘the rules and standards that are understood by members of a group, and that guide and/or constrain social behaviour without the force of laws’ (Cialdini & Trost, 1998, p. 152). Social norms are argued to provide expectations of the kind of ways members of society should feel, think, and act (Popenoe, 1983). To be effective, social norms should be obvious and clear, as, in this way, they can directly influence social behaviour (Kallgren et al., 2000). Bicchieri (2005) suggests that social norms perform several important functions in society: cooperation, law and order, the establishment of consensus, group cohesion, social harmony, and many more. In addition, social norms may help to target specific issues, creating positive social change; although, it is necessary to point out that not all norms will lead to positive outcomes. In some cases, positive social change may be brought about by resistance to social influence, replacing older ways of thinking and behaving and creating novel, more positive norms. This article will discuss the key functions of social norms, highlighting their significance in research and everyday life whilst outlining some of the key strengths and limitations of psychological research on social norms and influence.
What are social norms?
It is necessary to understand what social norms are before discussing their functions. Common examples of social norms in Western cultures include shaking hands when meeting someone for the first time and staying quiet when others talk as a sign of listening and respect. It is essential to emphasise that social norms are culturally relative, meaning that cultures will differ in their guidelines of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour (Minkov et al., 2012). In addition, social norms are also context-dependent, as different scenarios often require different norms (Rakoczy & Schmidt, 2012).
Psychologists distinguish between two types of social norms: descriptive and prescriptive social norms (Cialdini et al., 1991). Descriptive social norms result from informational social influence, where individuals seek out information and change their behaviour at a personal level to be correct. These norms commonly describe what people are doing in society. Prescriptive social norms result from normative social influences (normally public compliance with behaviour, but no changes in private views), which outline how people ought to be behaving. Social influence is linked to both types of social norms. Saliency—i.e., noticeability and importance—is a principal determinant of how effective and successful norms are (Kallgren et al., 2000). The more salient the social norm, the greater its effectiveness and influence on public behaviour.
FUNCTIONS OF SOCIAL NORMS
Promoting law and order
Due to their immense influence on human behaviour, it is evident that social norms have key functions in society. One of their principal functions is the promotion of law and order. This function is prevalent since coordinating and regulating human behaviour is crucial for the safety and protection of each member of society. Having systematic norms means that every individual is aware of the rules surrounding appropriate and inappropriate actions and behaviour, reducing the amount of individual learning needed to function in society and allows social order to be maintained foregoing excessive violence or force (Bicchieri, 2005). Norms help individuals to make informed decisions about what is and is not allowed in public and private attitudes, reducing the probability of social conflicts and irrational decision-making (Meares & Kahan, 1998). For example, social norms governing racism and prejudice in a given country may state that racist and discriminatory actions are legally and morally unacceptable. Social norms aim to mitigate these behaviours. Evidence for a strong positive correlation between normative appropriateness of racist prejudice and reported racist prejudice comes from Blanchard and colleagues (1991). They used 72 White women as participants to show that as the normative, publicly perceived appropriateness of prejudice increased, the self-reported private levels of prejudice also increased. The researchers designed two experiments to measure the relationship between norms and racist prejudice. Two independent variables—the direction of normative influence and the number of influential agents—were manipulated with the help of confederates. The results suggested that prescriptive norms arising from normative social influence are strongly linked to racist attitudes.
Influencing agents also play a vital role in this respect. Data shows that even one individual with anti-racist views can induce anti-racist opinions in the public. Blanchard and colleagues’ (1991) results support previous findings from Asch’s (1956) seminal study on compliance, in which the presence of a dissenter significantly reduced conformity rates (from 33% to 5.5%) in an experiment where participants were asked to match lines of the same length. Blanchard and colleagues (1991) demonstrated a very significant relationship between the normative appropriateness of prejudice/racism and reported prejudice/racism, supporting the idea that social norms influence societal law and order. One methodological limitation of this study is the use of self-report. Because of demand characteristics, this is not always a reliable indicator of true human behaviour. Confounding variables, such as social desirability bias and participant bias, may also have influenced the research outcomes, creating a strong correlational link between norms and reported prejudice/racism levels. Moreover, Blanchard and colleagues’ findings contain a gynocentric bias, as the research only used female participants. Such a bias may have impacted the study’s outcomes, as male participants may have been differently affected by normative social influence. Consequently, despite the significant results, it is important to be cautious when generalising these findings beyond the sample studied.
A similar function of social norms is establishing a consensus, which encourages cooperation and social influence (Kelman, 1958). One of the most famous studies on conformity was carried out by Asch (1956), who showed that social norms can lead to compliance (and thus, cooperation) with the group. Asch recruited 123 male volunteers in the United States (US) and in each experiment placed the participant at the end of a row of seven confederates. The participant’s task was to judge different line lengths. The average conformity rate was roughly 33% in the critical trials where the confederates all gave incorrect judgements. Although this conformity rate is still relatively low, Asch’s study suggested that social norms, such as prescriptive social norms, may promote compliance with the group if the majority position is unanimous. Compliance with others is beneficial on a group level (and to some extent, may also be helpful on an individual level). It helps to create overt consensus and cooperation, even if the group’s views are not privately internalised. Therefore, one of the functions of social norms is to promote group consensus, which in turn promotes human cooperation, acting as a cue of judgement for individual decision-making (Conradt & Roper, 2005). It is essential to highlight, however, that most psychological studies on the functions of social norms used WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) samples. Generalising the results of such psychological studies to other societies is challenging, since they cannot account for the cultural differences between WEIRD and non-WEIRD cultures. Given the lack of cross-cultural data, future research would benefit from exploring the link between human cooperation and social norms across different societies, allowing a more profound comprehension of potentially culturally relative and universal associations.
Inducing and preserving social harmony
Social norms also operate as a way of inducing and preserving social harmony. For example, in a field experiment, Paluck and colleagues (2016) selected 56 schools in the US to take part in anti-conflict research. The experiment aimed to design and spread norms fostering anti-conflict behaviours, such as anti-bullying. The researchers found a 30% overall reduction in peer conflict in schools where the new norms and perceptions were spread. Hence, this study’s findings provided evidence that social norms could create and preserve social harmony. Paluck and colleagues’ study has high statistical power due to its large sample size, making it more likely that the observed effect between anti-conflict norms and subsequent behaviour is significant. High statistical power is undoubtedly a positive aspect of the study, since researchers can be confident about the meaningful role norms play in generating and maintaining harmony in society in the US. Paluck and colleagues’ study showed that social norms could positively change human behaviour, functioning as sources of information designed to bring about social harmony (ibid.). Nonetheless, Paluck and colleagues’ research seems to lack cultural generalisability because it was conducted in the US; it is WEIRD-centric, making it difficult to generalise the findings on social norms and harmony to other, non-WEIRD cultures. Henceforth, it may be most appropriate to only generalise Paluck and colleagues’ findings to WEIRD societies.
Social norms as social heuristics
In addition to the aforementioned functions, Paluck and colleagues’ (2016) study also evidences other essential functions of social norms, such as social heuristics. Social heuristics allow people to make informed decisions in social situations. Normative messages function as social heuristics, and this seems to be more effective in influencing human behaviour by reducing demands on brain processing power and individual learning. A study on littering by Kallgren and colleagues (2000) showed the extent to which norms can bring about automatic behaviours. Their findings suggested that the amount of litter in the environment influenced how much people littered. When people believed littering was the norm, they automatically adjusted their behaviours to match that norm. Littering behaviour increased as the number of litter pieces increased. However, littering decreased when there was only one litter piece in the environment. Kallgren and colleagues (ibid.) suggested that salience was one of the most significant factors in this regard since littering became more salient as the number of litter pieces augmented, inducing littering as the norm. A similar study in Sweden with a higher ecological validity and a larger sample size replicated the main effect of Kallgren and colleagues’ results but did not find evidence for the one-litter-piece effect (Bergquist et al., 2021). Kallgren and colleagues’ and Bergquist and colleagues’ (2021) findings agree that any norm can function as a social heuristic affecting people’s behaviours—regardless of being positive or negative. It is a strength that Bergquist and colleagues conducted the study in Europe, since this helps to confirm cross-cultural validity within different WEIRD societies. Nevertheless, it is necessary to point out that both studies are WEIRD-centric, and lack cross-cultural generalisability to some degree.
Norms as social facts and drivers of social change
Norms also function as social facts and may bring about social change on a societal and individual level. Studies targeting voting behaviour (Gerber et al., 2008) and energy usage (Goldstein et al., 2008) found that norms can increase voter turnout and convince people to save energy, creating social change on both macro and micro levels. For instance, people who were told that most individuals in their neighbourhood vote in elections were themselves more likely to vote. For energy usage, there was a major increase in hotel guests re-using their towels, when guests were told that on average, 75% of guests normally re-use their towels. Interestingly, proximity seemed to be a particularly important factor in towel re-usage: Goldstein and colleagues (2008) found that the nearer in space and time referenced guests were to the current guests, the higher the rate of towel re-usage was. In this way, proximity appears to impact social norms’ influence. Both studies show how norms are powerful, positive predictors of social change. Nonetheless, there may be instances in which a minority position goes against norms and the majority position, aiming to change negatively perceived social norms. In these situations, resistance to social norms creates positive social change. The historical example of suffragettes is a form of resistance to social influence, aiming to transform the rather unfair voting norms at the time. Suffragettes’ resistance to the majority position and rejection of the old voting norms enabled a novel, more positive social norm: women being able to vote. Similarly, as mentioned above, we can observe in different conditions of Asch’s (1956) study that the presence of a non-obedient peer decreased conformity rates remarkably, from 33% to 5.5%. This shows that unanimity plays a vital role in conformity. Unanimity is important as individuals will be more likely to resist social influence once the group’s unanimous position is broken. The presence of even one person defying the norm can allow others to defy it, too, which appears to be a significant driver of social change.
In conclusion, social norms’ main functions include the promotion of law and order, establishing consensus, inducing social harmony and cooperation, and social change, more generally. Norms also act as social heuristics, enabling individuals to make informed decisions. Studies indicate that norms significantly impact human behaviour, influencing both public and private attitudes. Although some norms do not convey positive messages, others have the power to create positive societal changes and reduce social conflict. Norms can target groups or specific individuals, and, on the whole, serve as rules and expectations on how one should act and behave. The diversity of studies on social norms and influence is very helpful in understanding human behaviour; however, it is important to note that many of these findings have low ecological validity and limited sample sizes. Moreover, many findings in this field are subject to demand characteristics, as discussed above. In addition, definitions of social norms—which vary greatly between studies—create challenges in generalising the findings. These issues must be taken into account when discussing psychological data on the functions of social norms.
Addiction as care? An account of personhood and norms in social anthropology
Clare College, University of Cambridge
This commentary introduces the topic of social norms and assesses how such norms have been approached in social anthropology. Starting with a broad introduction to norms in the discipline, I will draw upon the work of Angela Garcia (2014, 2015) and Annelieke Driessen (2018), analysing how both authors complicate what a ‘norm’ can be, situating norms within wider dynamics of love and responsibility. This piece concludes that whilst the ubiquity of analysis of ‘norms’ in social sciences makes their study complex, recognising how norms may be strategised, sought, and rejected, is nonetheless crucial to begin the process of recognising the diversity of their power and potential.
Analysis of norms has arguably existed throughout the history of social anthropological research. Early Durkheimian analysis pushed the belief that whilst humans were inherently egotistical, ‘social consciousness’ (often directed by norms) formed the moral grounding and overall cohesion of society, which in turn was structured by social facts (Durkheim & Halls, 1982). Foundational anthropologists like Bronisław Malinowski incorporated an analysis of deviance and norms in their ‘comparative’ perspectives (Raybeck, 1988, p. 372), often interwoven within a wider evolutionist insistence on humanity as possessing a single point of origin. Later, E. Adamson Hoebel proposed that a social norm becomes ‘legal’ if punishment is performed or threatened to those who do not conform (see Hoebel, 1954, pp. 250–258). More recent literature on norms in anthropology has situated norms alongside wider literature on law, promoted by figures like Max Gluckman, a leader in activist anthropology.
As a discipline markedly colonial in origin, social anthropology first approached social norms via a lens of narrow comparison. Often relying on unilineal notions of cultures as having a single point of origin, anthropology first registered ‘deviance’ from social ‘norms’ by identifying practices, beliefs, and bodies which differed from typically Western ‘ideals’ (Lewis, 1973, p. 581). Whilst tracing the concept of social norms in anthropology would require an analysis of almost the entire discipline, I want to introduce how the struggle over ‘norms’ has been independently tackled by the anthropologists Angela Garcia (2015) and Annelieke Driessen (2018), particularly in relation to addiction, personhood, and care. In doing so, this preamble seeks to reveal how recent anthropological literature has redrawn what ‘deviance’ can mean, recognising that whilst perceived deviance may still face judgement, it can nonetheless fulfil a productive, and indeed loving, function as well.
Gellen’s article holds that ‘social norms operate as a way of inducing and preserving social harmony’. But harmony for who? And to what end? In asking this, I was reminded of an article by Garcia (2014), entitled ‘Regeneration: Love, drugs and the remaking of Hispano inheritance,’ which explores how addiction becomes a norm shaping family and care dynamics in Northern New Mexico. Garcia’s compelling and astute article on intergenerational addiction networks, reminds us how deviance from norms can aid, rather than challenge, the preservation of peace. Garcia’s work describes a more complex path to ‘harmony,’ recognising that adherence to ‘social norms’ is frequently judged by the ability to conform to typical expectations of good personhood, often meaning an absence of addiction, and the associated public display of good parenting (ibid., p. 5). Opposing this, Garcia describes intergenerational addiction as a form of connection, entangled with experiences of loss. She includes the Spanish phrases ‘querencia’ [love], and ‘herencia’ [heritage], centering her analysis on the fused importance of these two categories. Through the framing of love and heritage, heroin is understood as a substance which nourishes relations between kin, whilst also perpetuating the ‘injuries it seeks to repair’ (ibid., p. 6). Here, Garcia’s work draws upon the paradoxes which shape love and relationality, illustrating the familial complexity present in much anthropological analysis. Garcia’s writing shows that adherence to and deviance from ‘social norms’ can come hand in hand. Indeed, in describing addiction dynamics across kin groups, Garcia implicitly questions the notion that addiction cannot itself become a norm, especially when its presence is felt across generations, woven into relationships of care. Garcia writes of Bobby, who at 14 years old learnt how to cook and inject heroin into his father, developing knowledge of where to inject with most safety and ease. Garcia explains how heroin helped ease Bobby’s fathers pain, and actually ‘improved their father-son relationship’ (ibid., p. 7). What ‘norms’ are understood to be, and how their impact is experienced, is by no means linear, nor consistently predictable. In re-conceptualising addiction as care, Garcia also reminds us that the line between deviance and adherence is not always clear. It is perhaps because of this lack of clarity, rather than in spite of it, that families and kin networks are able to assert their own lifeways (Grim, 2006), redrawing the boundaries of individual and interconnected norms of duty and care.
Further tackling social norms in relation to care, Annelieke Driessen (2018) proposes that deviance from the expected can also produce new regimes of care, allowing new spaces for developing personhood to come to light. For Driessen (2018), presenting dementia as a single pathway towards subjectivity means that alternative pathways become obscured, with this ‘obscuring’ recognising deviance as a challenge to a norm, rather than the potential for positive change. Driessen’s (ibid.) work ‘Pleasure and dementia: On becoming an appreciating subject’ begins with the assertion that the so-called ‘Fourth Age’ does not have to mean a loss of subjectivity. Driessen proposes ‘articulating alternatives’ as a means of countering the dominant view that cognitive decline is fatal to subjectivity, describing the Dutch care-home residents as ‘appreciating subjects’ with the potential for pleasure, rather than as subjects ‘characterised by a lack’ (ibid., p. 5). In seeing that residents cannot conform to norms of speech or behaviour typically expected of adults, Driessen calls for the caring shift in focus from ‘cognitive capacities’ to ‘crafted conditions’ which help capture the potential for pleasure among people with dementia. Whereas Garcia focuses on relationships in relation to social norms, Driessen examines the settings in which different relationships exist. This focus leads Driessen to conclude that subjectivity (and subjects) emerge differently in accordance with various physical structures. Driessen uses an analysis of proximity and space to show that subjectivity is not an innate capability, but rather a set of positions and possibilities which emerge in embodied interactions (ibid.). Driessen goes beyond challenging the importance of pre-given norms, concluding that subjects are not ‘pre-given presences’ whose identities and experiences are situationally transformed. Rather than saying that deviance and adherence to norms can co-exist, Driessen instead proposes that deviance itself produces new norms in environments of care. She explores care home residents’ deviance from ‘normal’ behaviour, analysing deviance as offering the potential for new possibilities of pleasure to emerge. Driessen’s work reveals how the anthropology of care has confronted what we know to be ‘normal’, seeing norms not as the arbiters of ‘harmony,’ but as potentially obstructive influences in our treatment of people with dementia.
Providing a clear definition of norms and their influence is a huge task, and one that risks universalising specific understandings of right and wrong. Although most anthropologists would agree that norms are a significant part of any given culture, many are turning to how the questioning, if not outright rejection, of norms is an increasingly significant force across societies. Importantly, for Boyd and Richerson (1994), people are not ‘rule bound robots who carry out the dictates of their culture’ (1994, p. 72); rather, ‘people are seen to strategise within the confines of their own culture’s norms, using those norms to their own advantage’ (ibid., pp. 72–73). Whilst correct in seeing norms as something to be navigated, Boyd and Richerson focus on norms which are actively engaged with, somewhat missing how norms can function strongest when their influence is undetected. However, recognising how norms may be strategised, sought, and rejected, is crucial to at least starting to recognise the diversity of their power and potential.
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