Researchers study social norms and how they influence what we do, how we think


How come so many people have started to say “Great! Or to wear Uggs?

These are examples of how the behavior of individuals is shaped by what the people around them consider appropriate, correct or desirable. Researchers are studying how human behavioral norms are set in groups and how they change over time, hoping to learn how to exert more influence when it comes to promoting health, marketing products or reduce prejudices.

Psychologists study how social norms, the often unspoken rules of a group, shape not only our behavior but also our attitudes. Social norms even influence preferences considered private, such as the music we love or the policies we support. It is believed that interventions that take advantage of already existing group pressures should be able to change attitudes and behaviors with less effort and resources.

Standards serve a fundamental human social function, helping us distinguish who is in the group and who is an outsider. Behaving in a way that the group considers appropriate is a way of showing to others, and to yourself, that you belong to the group.

But surprisingly, little is known about how standards of attitude are set in groups. Why do some people in a group become forerunners in matters of ideas and objects?

“The questions are among the most difficult” in the field, said H. Peyton Young, professor at the University of Oxford in the UK and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Dr. Young studies how standards influence economic behavior. “This is definitely a large, open area of ​​research where there are a number of disputes.”

One question is whether there is always a leader who sets or changes the norm, or if the norm change occurs organically over time, even in the absence of a strong leader.

Researchers studied how new ideas and innovations, whether it be the latest fad, an electronic gadget or a slang word, are introduced and disseminated within a group. Individuals who innovate tend to be somewhat isolated from the rest of the group, the researchers say. Being too part of a group can restrict the ability to think outside of convention, says Christian Crandall, professor of social psychology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who studies social norms. “There is a freedom to innovate” that comes with isolation, says Dr. Crandall.

Although innovators may be isolated, the group often embraces their innovations because these new ideas or objects are an accessible way for group members to bond or signal solidarity. It could be a baseball cap worn inside out or a pouch. Each one conveys a different identity.

But before others embrace the new idea, someone central to the group, with more connections than the innovator, must recognize it.

Another important factor is whether the new idea arouses emotion. Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied what makes ideas “go viral.” His team analyzed 7,000 newspaper articles in the New York Times and found that the articles considered to be the most popular on the newspaper’s website were the ones that elicited the most emotions, especially happy emotions, but also anger or anxiety.

Scientists know that group pressure has a powerful influence on health-related behaviors, including alcohol consumption, smoking, and exercise. By developing a deeper understanding of the dynamics of trend setters and trend followers, researchers can uncover more behavioral options for promoting health and preventing disease.

The more public an object or behavior, the more likely it is to spread, says Dr. Berger. Brightly colored bracelets worn to show support for cancer survivors are seen by others, making private value visible. “Your thoughts aren’t public, but your behaviors are,” says Dr. Berger.

Rarely does an individual set an entirely new standard for the group. Group leaders, however, help perpetuate or change the norm. Unlike innovators, leaders tend to be high-level “super-conformers”, embodying the most typical characteristics or aspirations of the group, says Deborah Prentice, a social psychologist at Princeton University. People inside and outside the group tend to infer group norms by examining the behaviors of these leaders.

Society’s attitudes toward gay Americans have changed dramatically after high-ranking individuals like Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor spoke out and explicitly set a new standard of acceptance, said Dr Crandall of the University of Kansas .

But observing the behavior of others can also lead to misperceptions of the norm, which in turn can cause the actual norm to change. Misperceptions are dangerous when it comes to risky behavior. In a series of studies, Dr. Prentice and his team asked participating students, who filled out questionnaires, how much alcohol they drank and how much they thought a typical student at their college drank. Researchers found that students often overestimated how much alcohol others drank. The amount that students reported drinking was closely related to their beliefs about how much alcohol others drank: students who thought others drank more tended to report drinking more.

Many colleges have tried, with varying success, to correct frowned upon standards of alcohol consumption, for example by using posters to publicize actual rates of alcohol consumption. Similar standards-based approaches have been tried to influence smoking and eating disorders within groups.

Sometimes a misperception of societal norms can have a positive effect. People who have negative opinions about other ethnic groups, for example, may suppress those opinions if they think these attitudes will not be accepted within their own group. “Removal becomes a reality over time,” says Dr. Crandall.

And recent evidence suggests that chance plays a role in popularizing concepts. Matt Salganik, a sociologist at Princeton, wondered why the Harry Potter novels had become so popular, given that the original manuscript was widely rejected before it was published. His team created an artificial online marketplace to examine influences on individual preferences.

In a study published in Science in 2006, participants went to a website and listened to songs, rated and downloaded the ones they liked. The 14,000 participants were randomly assigned to different “worlds”. Individuals in the “independent” world simply rated and uploaded songs without any input into what others were doing. In the other seven dependent worlds, the reviewers saw which songs the other participants uploaded and how they rated them.

The researchers estimated that if the ratings were based solely on the tastes of each participant, then the best songs would be ranked at the top and all worlds would reflect the independent world. But if, as they suspected, the participants were influenced by the ratings of others, then different songs would be rated highest in each world.

Researchers have found great variation in rankings between different worlds. Often, which song was highly rated simply depended on who the first reviewers were. Under certain circumstances, “if you rewound the world and replay it, you might see a potentially different result,” says Dr. Salganik.

Write to Shirley S. Wang at [email protected]

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