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The impact of social norms in networks

In this article, we introduce you to the principles of normative influence, and the impact that has on social norms in networks.
Two people with a TV instead of a head
© ACTISS

In our lives, we often have to make choices between products, political parties, or take a stand in a discussion.

Obviously, we can collect information on the merits of one product or idea over another, especially when the internet offers us abundant information on the merits and disadvantages of almost all choices we are confronted with. Just think about the product reviews you can find on the internet.

In this way, we can determine the so-called utilities of products and ideas, and decide on what is best for us.

However, is our choice being appreciated by those around us? Do the people you are connected with appreciate it when you have a deviant opinion, or choose a different brand than they do? This refers to the social norms that are often important in our lives.

We fear social exclusion

Being a very social species, people generally dislike feeling like outcasts, and we fear social exclusion. As a result, we have a tendency to conform to what is “normal” in the group.

The tendency to conform to what the majority of the group is doing may determine your behaviour, especially when it concerns very visible and communicable products or opinions.

For more privately-used products, like rice or cleaning products, this norm will not be very important; mind that people may still inform each other about the experiences they have with a product, e.g. through product reviews.

For very visible products, such as clothing or smoking, the norm may be very strong, and people may end up smoking or wearing uncomfortable business apparel to comply with the norm and avoid social exclusion.

The agricultural society

When the communities in agricultural society got larger, and the first cities emerged, the people could observe the behaviour of many more people, whilst the number of informational interactions that require more time would remain on a lower level.

Thus, the norm became more important in larger communities, and fashions and social practices became important as normative parts of culture on how to behave in larger societies.

Social norms may force you to comply when you don’t want to

Therefore, social norms may cause you to choose a product or comply with an opinion that you personally do not prefer. However, you still choose to avoid negative responses from those around you.

This means your behaviour is based on a combination of your personal preferences and the social norms that you experience. Sometimes you might comply with the norm, even if this means deviating from your personal preferences.

Much of our behaviour is driven by these normative forces, and they may play a critical role in the success or failure of changes in society.

The following video demonstrates the classic Asch experiment on conformity, showing how strong the normative pressure can be.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

© ACTISS
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