Social Psychology - Chapter 10

How do norms and behavior influence each other? - Chapter 10



We have now learned that norms are not the only mental representations that influence our behavior (attitudes do that too). Usually, norms and attitudes work together to steer behavior (this is explained later in this chapter). Since many of our attitudes are also a product of our membership to a group, they almost never conflict with our norms.

Lewin (1943) was one of the first social psychologists to demonstrate the powerful effect of group norms on behavior. As with attitudes, however, norms must also be met before they affect behavior.

Before norms can affect behavior, they must be activated (just like attitudes or any other mental representation). This activation, or making it accessible, of (group) norms can be caused by different cues:

  • Direct reminders (such as the "silence" sign in the library)

  • Environment cues (such as the prevailing silence in the library)

  • Observations of other people's behavior (because we see that others keep quiet)

The most dramatic way in which a group norm can be accessed is when we see ourselves as completely one with the group, inasmuch as we do not even see ourselves as an individual anymore. The individualization refers to the psychological state in which the group identity or social identity dominates the personal identity. The person loses himself in the crowd. This does result in optimum access to group norms. Consequences of this vary, depending on the activated norm, from social to antisocial behavior.

Which norms influence the behavior?

What others do (descriptive norms) regularly influences what we do ourselves. Shared convictions about what should be done (injunctive standards) can also influence our behavior. As with descriptive norms, there is the chance that we misinterpret the norms. Both descriptive norms and injunctive norms therefore influence our intentions and behaviors, and these norms can also influence each other. What happens, for example, when the types of norms contradict each other? Most students find that plagiarism is bad (injunctive), but most do it anyway (descriptively). Research by Smith and colleagues (2012) shows that when descriptive norms and injunctive norms contradict each other (mismatch),the intention of the behavior is as low as when there would be no support for each of the norms. When people receive information about only one type of norm, they automatically assume that the other norm is in accordance with the information obtained. As a result, one type of norm can already cause a change in behavior.

One type of normative information may be more important than the other, depending on our motivation and ability to take this carefully into consideration.

Why are norms so effective in steering behavior?

Sometimes the behavior is enforced according to (social) norms with the help of rewards or punishments. Such use of coercion, however, is an ineffective way of allowing normative behavior to occur, because there is no question of personal acceptance. In most cases, however, people follow standards, simply because they think these standards are good and decent. This is called internalization of standards and is seen as very functional. Acting in accordance with the norm is accompanied by many positive consequences (such as maintaining a shared reality, good for self-respect and self-esteem, group identity, what is good for the group is also good for the individual, respect for others, etc.) .

Following norms can also be partly determined in our genes!

The reciprocity norm

An important social norm is that favors must be exchanged. This exchange of favors indicates the norm of social reciprocity, or "something for something". This principle applies even if we are not allowed to agree with the person to whom we make concessions. When making concessions, it is often assumed that they are reciprocal. It can limit us that there is a feeling of reciprocity. An example of this is sales techniques. The "door-in-the-face" technique is a well-known technique where first a proposal is made that is so demanding that it will be rejected, after which a smaller request is made that gives the impression of a concession. This makes it more likely that the person will admit to the small request.

For this technique to work, three conditions must be met:

  • The first request must have the correct format. The request must be so large that it is certain that it is rejected, but if it is too big a request people become suspicious. If it is too small a request, the second (smaller) request is not seen as a concession.

  • The smaller request must be related to the larger prior request and must come from the same person (so that it is seen as a personal concession).

  • The person who is influenced must have the opportunity to reach a compromise by turning off the first request and responding to the second request.

Norm of social commitment

The norm of social commitment is the norm in which it is obligatory to comply with agreements and obligations. This obligation can be disadvantageous if someone concludes an agreement after which there are hidden costs. Nevertheless, people often stick to the agreement.

The "low-ball" technique is a technique in which the person who is influenced has already secured an agreement with the affected person and afterwards the request is only increased by showing hidden costs.

There are a number of reasons why people still adhere to such agreements. Firstly, one wants to maintain a positive self-image. One does not want to risk cognitive dissonance and the uncomfortable feeling that this gives. Secondly, because the original agreement is strengthened and cognitive bolstering takes place. This is the reinforcement of the original agreement through additional supporting thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Finally, people feel obliged to abide by the agreement because they have entered into the agreement.

Although the norms of reciprocity and social commitment are important in all cultures, they have stronger effects in collectivist cultures, as the members of such a culture are more sensitive to this.

The norm of obedience to authority

Milgram investigated obedience to authority 50 years ago (1963). In this well-known experiment, participants had to administer strong electric shocks to a participant who was audibly suffering from them. However, there were no people who got shocks; a band was used on which a person screamed. The subjects who had to share the shocks were not forced to do so, but most of them continued to administer the shocks. This showed that obedience was not due to personal shortcomings, indifference to the victims, or suspicion about the experiment and that this effect could not be explained away by time, place, or the people who participated in it. The experiment also shows that people are capable of much more when the responsibility lies with someone else (in this case with the research leader).

The norm of obedience to authority prescribes that one must obey the orders of persons with authority. Here are four conditions: 1) the standard of obedience must be accessible, 2) the other standards must be less accessible, 3) the authority must be credible and / or legitimate, and 4) the authority must accept the responsibility. Given that this is all the case with Milgram's experiment, many people attribute the results to this standard.

Even outside the laboratory obedience to disproportionate actions and orders takes place. Consider for example the atrocities in Abu Graib (notorious prison in Baghdad) where (Iraqi) prisoners were abused and humiliated by American soldiers. An explanation for this could be "organizational obedience". This is the submission that takes place in bureaucratic organizations such as Abu Graib.

The obligation to obey certain orders is often confirmed by different processes. For example, escalation, self-justification and hostility between different groups.

Pros and cons of obedience

In addition to using the obligation to obey authority for negative purposes, it can also be used for positive purposes. Following authority is very important in the proper functioning of a society (think of following up certain rules, for example in traffic).


Offering resistance to authorities is possible in various ways. Reactance is a motive to protect or restore a sense of freedom, for example if private standards are not accepted. A reason for reactance is, for example, when normative pressure (see previous chapter) is observed and labeled as indecent. A good defense against normative pressure on behavior is systematic processing. This means in this case that care must be taken to ensure that any standard that could possibly be applicable should be made accessible. There are several strategies that can help to ward off indecent normative pressures:

Analyze the way in which norms are used. How do norms work and how can they be used against you? Once you realize that a norm is being used against you, it loses power (Cialdini, 1993).

Examine claims regarding relationships. Norms are strong because of the relationships between people. Is the person who imposes this norm on you in the position to do so? A good way to do this is to think about your own personal values ​​(re-evaluate your own identity). When you do this, according to Binning and colleagues (2010), it is less likely that you follow the group standard.

View the norm from other perspectives (look through other people's eyes).

The use of norms against norms is the best defense tactic. In this process, a different direction of behavior is being considered on the basis of other norms. Consensus within a group and social support are very important for a successful resistance.

Multiple guidelines for certain behavior

Most of our behaviors are voluntary. In these cases, behavior is often a product of how people define situations as well as the social influence of others. How situations are perceived - both by the individual and by his / her group - has an enormous influence on what behavior is expressed. Here norms and attitudes come into the picture. Norms and attitudes (usually in good cooperation with each other) can influence our behavior in direct and indirect ways. In the direct way, behavior is immediately set in motion. In the indirect way, one tries to behave in accordance with his or her intentions. According to the "theory of planned behavior", behavior is jointly influenced by attitudes, norms and perceived behavioral control. Norms are often the cause of misunderstanding between cultures. However, some norms are also universal. This is evolutionarily useful, facilitating (provides better understanding) and these standards can be regularly activated.

When attitudes and norms contrast, the relative accessibility determines the behavior. The relative accessibility of attitudes and norms is influenced by the situation, the person and the behavior. For example, individual attitudes have more influence on individual behavior and the behavior of different people is influenced to varying degrees by their own attitudes.

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