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Breaking Social Norms


The other day in class we noticed a funny thing: almost all the database annotations were titled “Database Annotation: (Database Title).” It wasn’t in the instructions to title our annotations that way, yet we did it without talking to each other or deciding that was how every group should title their pages. Do you remember the first day of class when we had to introduce ourselves? By the end of the introductions everyone was following the pattern that had come up on how to introduce ourselves.

Why did this happen?

We all know that humans follow certain social norms that allow us to interact “properly” within the society we live in. But do we consciously realize how much they affect us on a daily basis?

One blog post I came across (titled The Cost of Social Norms) described social norms from a behavioral economics perspective. When is is appropriate to give money to people for things they have put effort into? As an example, the author, Dan Ariely, describes how a husband’s offer to give money to his mother-in-law for cooking Thanksgiving dinner is met  with gasps, embarrassment, and glares from other family members. With this example he compares how social and market norms interact in separate ways, and how “when social and market norms collide, trouble sets in.

Another aspect of social norms are trendsetters; who creates the social norms and trends? According to this article a question researchers ask is whether there is always a leader that sets or changes the norm, or whether norm change occurs organically over time, even in the absence of a strong leader. Fashion statements, apps, technology or colloquial language get spread in society enough to become social norms by being recognized by trendsetters and then spread through society by different group leaders who help to spread it.

What do you think of social norms, and how do you think they affect your life? How do you think social norms are created? Can social norms have negative effects on society, positive effects, or both?

  1. March 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    For me, social norms have been always words carrying a negative connotation. Basically, that is guidelines for what society expects from people. It is similar to actors in the play who have their roles and scripts; the society is telling us how to behave. For me, it was always putting a pressure on my perception of freedom, of what is acceptable or not. Social norms have a powerful impact on the behavior of individuals, sometimes changing completely the whole uniqueness of the person. The fact of conformation to social roles by most members of the society, allows them to follow the set of rules that do not make sense sometimes. Everybody who is deviating or not following artificial rules not created by law is called misfits and cannot really find themselves in the social patterns. Why people, who are just being simply different and unique in some sense, are rejected from the society or even chased sometimes? The social norms destroy our individuality, ability to think outside the box or try something new. The phrase “not accepted by the society” became one of the most popular in the modern word in attempts to explain why humanity rejects some behaviors. Is it fair? Where is the positive side of social norms? Are humans created in order to follow some set patterns just because it is easier?

  2. March 31, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I found this on stumbleupon.com this morning, and thought it would be a perfect addition to this post.


    Social norms are expectations that a group has for its members regarding acceptable and appropriate behaviors/attitudes. The problem with social norms, to me, is that they’re sort of unwritten – nowhere does it say that the left side of the escalator is for walking and the right side is for standing. But there are positive functions to social norms, which are that they provide consistency and balance, which is something people look for and need for comfort. They also orient people to new situations, and just by observation people are able to see what to/not to do in certain social situation.

    The two reasons that people adhere to social norms (or conform) is because we want to be liked/reassured/approved of by people, and because we want to seem smart/right/correct.

    Overall, it makes sense why people conform – we all do it. The balance, though, is maintaining our individuality and dignity in the process.

  3. April 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Social norms are a part of daily life, and those individuals who claim to not follow them are usually those who fit into the description of followers best of all. Then again, I’m not trying to categorize us all under one label of “followers”. There are many people who recklessly go through life creating their own patterns and channeling their creativity. Those are usually the ones who succeed in their later career path.

    Social norms provide guidance and a soothing reassurance that we are doing the right thing. Without them, many of us would be forever searching for a path to dwell on. Some people need a plan already set out for them in order to breathe easily.

    In college we are torn away from this direct plan and told to work on our own. Many students find it hard at first to focus on going to class and do assignments on time without being reminded countless times. Eventually, everyone learns how to manage for themselves.

    Guidelines provide structural paths for those of us not accustomed to breaching out. Social norms elicit stability, a societal interpretation that separates what is right from what is wrong. They develop a basic groundwork from which we grow and create our own life paths and ambitions.

  4. April 2, 2012 at 12:32 am

    I agree that there are different kinds of social norms. What I think is important is to understand where such social norms come from. For example, during the influence of JIm Crow Law, it was a common thing for the white people to commit racism toward colored people. It was a social norm for the white people to not to interfere or stop racism, regardless of their opinions on racism.

    Still, certain social norms which describe professional ethics and behavior, I think it should be welcomed. Professions such as doctor and police officers are required to make a highly ethical decisions. Social norms exists to ensure fairness, to everyone and guide the individuals to the right ethics.

    I think, understanding social norm is like understanding adults

  5. April 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    I definitely agree that there are different kinds of social norms. I also believe that they affect our lives much more than we realize. Social norms are created by society and they continue to be created because we become so use to them. They have both negative and positive effects on society for several reasons. They are followed because we think that we should follow them. We follow them because if we don’t we will be perceived differently than others. People don’t want to be alone or social outcasts and therefore that is why they follow them. I also agree with the above post that in order to understand adults better than we need to understand social norms. Social norms obviously affect behavior even in the professional world. There’s not much we can do to change these norms because they have been around for a long time in one way or another. All we can do is follow our gut which unfortunately is affected by social norms.

  6. anthonypribadi
    April 7, 2012 at 4:54 am

    In one of the articles which pookersays mentions (online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704436004576298962165925364.html), there is something that appears to be really interesting to me. It says that the trendsetter is usually the isolated guy. Being too much (or deeply) involved in a certain group makes it more difficult to break the convention (i.e. to come up with something new which will become the new trend, soon). And if the popular guy from the group spots what the isolated trendsetter is doing, voila, a new trend is just set, because he is the one who will actually spread the trend to (or influence) the rest of the people in the group.

    I didn’t really realize of the above finding, but it is kind of make sense on the second thought.

  7. April 8, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    I have always thought negatively of the term social norms. As many of you said above, I think it does limit or individual freedom- there is a fear of being the one different from the majority. Social norms seem to be a ‘written law’-it doesn’t usually gets disputed. I think it is important to consider how social norms vary throughout different cultures. I agree with something that was mentioned above about how they provide ‘guidelines’ for us to follow and they give us the idea that we are doing the ‘right’ thing. I generally feel like the social norms have been more of a pressure for me at times, but I have the utmost respect for those who go against the norms in order do what they feel is best.

  8. April 9, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I really think that social norms should be taken on a case-by-case basis; there’s no sweeping generalization you can make about them. Social norms can be good, bad, neutral, or anywhere in between. Not lashing out at someone when you’re upset is certainly a “good” social norm, but I would argue that your example of how people conformed to a cetain style of writing is a good example of a bad social norm (because it stifles creativity). Again, it’s a case-by-case thing.

    There’s also one thing from They Say, I Say that I wanted to bring up: some social norms can augment creativity instead of ruining it. In They Say, I Say, the author used the example of how music is actually made more creative by the standard verse-chorus-verse structure. In this case, and with others, conformity to a norm becomes a platform more creativity.

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