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Norms and why we follow them


Social and cultural norms are the behavioural expectations or rules within a society or group. There are numerous ways that they operate in our day to day lives.

Every society, workplace, or even group of friends has a set of shared norms and customary behaviour to which individuals try to conform. Norms make it easier to navigate interaction with others and provide reliability in a complex, changing, and uncertain world. On the other hand, just because something is normal it does not mean it is desirable; history is filled with cultural norms we would now judge as morally wrong, such as women or minority groups not being able to vote.

Social norms can influence behaviour because individuals take their cues from what others do and use their perceptions of norms as a standard against which to compare their own behaviours. Norms can be either explicitly stated or implicit in the behaviour of others: think of a sign which instructs people not to smoke (explicit) versus the norm (pre-covid at least) of shaking someone’s hand when you first meet them (implicit).

We follow norms either automatically, or consciously through a desire to fit in. Children may consciously and deliberately buy clothes (or nag their parents for them) to look more like their peers. The same children may not notice that they follow their peers in sitting in a certain part of the playground or cafeteria every lunchtime, which is also a norm.

Norms also have a powerful automatic (or System 1) component, sometimes known as the Chameleon Effect. For example, there is evidence that people unconsciously mimic the postures or facial expressions of those they are interacting with. Additionally, those who mimic each other more often seem to have smoother interactions and like each other more. Naturally, individuals who are more empathetic tend to exhibit the chameleon effect to a greater extent than individuals who are less empathetic (Chartrand and Bargh, 1999).

While the automatic nature of norms can make social interaction easier, it can backfire when you are mimicking irrational behaviour. A famous study by Latane and Darley (1968) found that students who were placed in a smoky room were more likely to report it as a problem if they were alone than if they were in a group. Furthermore, those who were in a group were less likely to report it if the others in the group had been instructed to remain passive. It appears that the students took a cue from the behaviour of others, concluding (without concrete basis) that the smoke was not dangerous if others were not reacting.

Social norms exert powerful influences on behaviour, for the better and for the worse. There are social penalties for non-compliance, which could range from a simple telling off or disapproving look, to being denied a job or a promotion. There are also benefits to conforming, such as popularity and success.

Behavioural interventions using social norms have been successful in several areas. As we go through this week, you will learn the four lessons we have established for designing norm interventions in behavioural science (Dolan et al, 2010):

  • Lesson 1: If the norm is desirable, let people know about it.
  • Lesson 2: Relate the norm to your target audience as much as possible.
  • Lesson 3: Norms may need reinforcing.
  • Lesson 4: Be careful when dealing with undesirable norms.


Why do you think humans develop norms and customs, and what are the pros and cons of this?

Now that you have learned how to recognise the prevalence of norms, as well as how and why people follow them, let us continue by learning about how to apply and harness positive norms and target them to specific audiences.


1. Chartrand TL, Bargh JA. The chameleon effect: the perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1999 Jun;76(6):893.
2. Dolan P, Hallsworth M, Halpern D, King D, Metcalfe R, Vlaev I. Influencing behaviour: The mindspace way. Journal of Economic Psychology. 2012 Feb 1;33(1):264-77.
3. Dolan P, Hallsworth M, Halpern D, King D, Vlaev I. MINDSPACE: influencing behaviour for public policy. 2010.
4. Latane B, Darley JM. Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1968 Nov;10(3):215.

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