Why we follow social norms, even when they don’t make sense


If you’ve ever seen the crush on tattooed and bespectacled people at a Brooklyn bar, or been berated by your grandmother for setting the table badly, you’ve probably wondered why humans follow the standards so closely. social. They dictate almost every aspect of our life, from career paths and fashion choices to the right number of hashtags in an Instagram caption. In my social circle, the answer to this last question is no more than three, but other people might have a totally different idea. This is one of the strangest things about social norms – because they seem so inflexible, they can change drastically depending on the culture.

So why did social norms develop in the first place? In an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers explored the subject using a tool you might not generally associate with psychology: computer simulations. In these simulations, “individuals” have chosen to participate or not in cooperative actions. These actions were divided into two types of situations that early humans probably faced: an “us against nature” scenario and an “us versus them” version. In the first, the group faced survival obstacles like avoiding predators or hunting for food. The second situation pitted the group against other humans – think about land conflicts or marriage.

The computer model was based on the widely held assumption in psychology that social norms are enforced through a reward system. The people who follow them are rewarded; those who do not are punished. In the computer model, the individuals who have chosen not cooperation with the group has sometimes had consequences.

Here is the interesting part. In the face of either type of conflict, the model predicted that “the internalization of the norm” would develop rapidly. In other words, people instinctively began to follow prescribed social behaviors. When the group punished people who did not cooperate, this effect was even stronger. The model also found a specter of cooperation. On the one hand, “under-socialized” individuals do not care about social norms, about punishment or about the lack of it. On the other hand, “over-socialized” people were ready to go to extremes for the good of the group, even to the point of sacrificing themselves.

Since this was all based on a computer model, it’s entirely theoretical. However, it shows how easily social norms are internalized. This largely explains a question that has puzzled psychologists for decades: Why do we follow certain social norms even when self-interest dictates otherwise? Sweeping might not be your favorite chore, for example, but unless you’re a jerk, you still do it when your turn comes.

Of course, social norms are not always so harmless. On the one hand, they might encourage some prejudice, and it’s certainly no fun being the person being punished for swimming against the proverbial tide – just look at the turmoil surrounding transgender rights. It’s safe to say that much of the discrimination transgender people face is punishment, consciously or not, for breaking gender norms.

Unfortunately, social norms appear in all cultures. It is up to individuals to decide whether to follow them or not. The next time you’re afraid of someone or something you don’t know, keep this in mind.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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