NORMS 101

The big difference between norms and attitudes is that you can see norms. Attitudes are invisible. We must guess at them by reading minds. In contrast, we can get lots of traction understanding norms because we can see them expressed in behavior. For those of us wishing to save the environment, it’s what people do rather than what they say that’s crucial, and that makes norms especially interesting.

Norms are behavioral regularities. When everybody does the same thing, we call it the "norm.” It’s a norm to be right-handed. Heights and weights have "norms.” No humans stand three meters tall or weigh 1,000 pounds. We also have statistical norms for the number of children borne by couples. These things can all be seen. Cialdini and his associates called behavioral regularities a "descriptive norm.”3

However, there’s more to social norms than simple behavioral regularity. Norms come with sanctions: rewards or punishments administered by others. They have an "ought” component: what we should do. This is called an "injunctive norm.” It’s what people say we should do, even if they don’t always do it.

Is being right-handed or brown-eyed really a social norm? Both are descriptive or statistical norms, just as having two children is currently a statistical norm in the United States. Lefties claim many "punishments” for being different: inoperable scissors, a phone booth’s design, a wine glass’s place on tables, and even how to kiss. These punishments are not planned to hurt or even change anyone (although left-handed children were once forced to shift to using their right hand); they just result from trying to swim against the current. So even when norms have small injunctive components (people thinking it’s what they should do), they still influence behavior.

Social norms exist when the social group—whether as large as an entire society or as small as two friends—sanctions behaviors. Sanctions in small groups are usually informal, that is, unwritten; given face to face, sometimes verbally; and sometimes unspoken, as when Swedes pushed me aside at the teller’s window. However, for society to function, some norms must be written, as in signs restricting where we park and laws demanding we stop at red lights. We call these "formal norms,” and they come with formal societal sanctions, like parking and speeding tickets. Some even impose prison for violating other laws.

Of course, social norms have psychological dimensions, which are represented by individuals’ belief systems. These norms are a special kind of attitude because they have a behavioral referent (that is, the attitude object is often the behavior itself). Most important, they come with internal sanctions.

If you follow the norm, you feel positive about yourself; if you don’t, you feel negative. Individual representations of norms include guesses about other people’s behaviors: "Mom, everybody is going to the dance.” They include expectations about the probability of sanctions and a loss of esteem from others: "He will hate me if I don’t.” We form our idea of the norm most often by watching the behavior of others, as I did at the bank. And when you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, you spend lots of time watching, as I discovered.

Thus, for a group or social system, we can speak of formal norms, something in writing with formal sanctions; and of informal norms, something unwritten with informal sanctions. We can also think of norms at the individual level. Personal norms carry an individual sense of obligation with internal sanctions. It’s important to realize personal norms might not be the same as social norms. Social norms are like downstream current in the river’s main channel, but along its banks or behind its rocks are places called "eddies,” where water actually goes upstream. Likewise, some people in society hold personal norms that differ and go against the currents of social norms. Conflicts between personal and social norms sow seeds for social change.

Within individuals, norms also exist as "perceptions” of social norms. For example, what percentage of people would shoot a wolf? A person might know it’s illegal to kill a wolf and hold a personal norm to not kill a wolf, but still believe "most people around here would shoot a wolf if they saw one.” That’s their perception of the social norm, and it might differ from the collectivity’s actual normative behavior. To summarize, we have statistical norms, formal norms, informal norms, personal norms, and perceived norms. To clarify, let’s take another lesson from Aldo Leopold, and return to those pesky birch trees.

 
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