Norm (social)

Norm (social)
Shaking hands after a sports match is an example of a social norm.

Social norms are the accepted behaviors within a society or group. This sociological and social psychological term has been defined as "the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit. They have also been described as the "customary rules of behavior that coordinate our interactions with others."[1]

Norms vary and evolve not only through time but also vary from between social classes and social groups. What is deemed to be acceptable dress, speech or behavior in one social group may not be accepted in another. Essentially, social norms are rules that define the behaviour that is expected, required, or acceptable in particular circumstances. They are learned through social interaction.

Deference to social norms maintains one's acceptance and popularity within a particular group. Social norms can be enforced formally (e.g., through sanctions) or informally (e.g., through body language and non-verbal communication cues). By ignoring social norms, one risks becoming unacceptable, unpopular or even an outcast.

As social beings, individuals learn when and where it is appropriate to say certain things, to use certain words, to discuss certain topics or wear certain clothes, and when it is not. Thus, knowledge about cultural norms is important for impression management,[2] which is an individual's regulation of their nonverbal behaviour. One also comes to know through experience what types of people he/she can and cannot discuss certain topics with or wear certain types of dress around. Typically, this knowledge is derived through experience.



Social norms can be viewed as statements (both implied and explicitly stated) that regulate behavior and act as social controls. They are usually based upon some degree of consensus within a group and are maintained through social sanctions. Three models explain normative rule content:

  • Focus on the actions of one's personal ego
  • Focus on ego's reactions to actions of alternative
  • Negotiation between ego and alternative.

Development of social norms

Groups may adopt norms in two different ways. One form of norm adoption is the formal method, where norms are written down and formally adopted (e.g., laws, legislation, club rules). However, social norms are much more likely to be informal, and emerge gradually (e.g., not wearing socks with sandals).

Norms can exist as both formal and informal rules of behaviour. Informal norms can be divided into two distinct groups:

  • Folkways: Informal rules and norms whose violation is not offensive, but expected to be followed. It's a kind of adjusting, accommodating type of habits. It does not invite any punishment or sanctions, but some reprimands or warnings.
  • Mores: They are also informal rules that are not written, but result in severe punishments and social sanction upon the individuals like social and religious exclusions.

Individuals who fail to comply with formally- or informally-sanctioned social norms are reprimanded in a number of ways. For example, noncompliant individuals may be criticized by others [3], denied food, or any number of other negative sanctions.

Transmission of social norms

Groups internalize norms by accepting them as reasonable and proper standards for behaviour within the group. Once firmly established, a norm becomes a social fact, and thus, a part of the group's operational structure, and is difficult to change. With that being said, newcomers to a group can change a group's norms. However, it is much more likely that the new individual entering the group will adopt the group's norms, values, and perspectives, rather than the other way around.

Also, norms that are counter to the behaviours of the overarching society or culture may be transmitted and maintained within small subgroups of society. For example, Crandall (1988) noted that certain social groups (e.g., cheerleading squads, dance troupes, sports teams, sororities) have a rate of bulimia that is much higher than society as a whole.

Terms related to social norms

A descriptive norm refers to people's perceptions of what is commonly done in specific situations. An injunctive norm refers to people's perceptions of what is commonly approved or disapproved of within a particular culture.[4]

Prescriptive norms are unwritten rules that are understood and followed by society. Everyone does these every day without thinking about them.

Proscriptive norms are unwritten rules that are known by society that one shouldn't do, or follow. These norms can vary from culture to culture.

Deviance is "nonconformity to a set of norms that are accepted by a significant number of people in a community or society (Appelbaum, 173)." In simple terms it is behavior that goes against norms.

The 'looking glass-self' is how one sees themselves by interacting with others, how others perceive oneself, what others expect, and how one should behave.

Example of a norm

Norms affect the way one behaves in public. When one enters an elevator, it is expected that one turns around to face the doors. An example of a social norm violation would be to enter the elevator and remain facing the rest of the people.

Game-theoretical analysis of social norms

A general formal framework that can be used to represent the essential elements of the social situation surrounding a norm is the repeated game of game theory.

A norm gives a person a rule of thumb for how they should behave. However, a rational person only acts according to the rule if it is optimal for them. The situation can be described as follows. A norm gives an expectation of how other people act in a given situation (macro). A person acts optimally given the expectation (micro). For a norm to be stable, people's actions must reconstitute the expectation without change (micro-macro feedback loop). A set of such correct stable expectations is known as a Nash equilibrium. Thus, a stable norm must constitute a Nash equilibrium.[5]

From a game theoretical point of view, there are two explanations for the vast variety of norms that exist throughout the world. One is the difference in games. Different parts of the world may give different environmental contexts and different people may have different values, which may result in a difference in games. The other is equilibrium selection not explicable by the game itself. Equilibrium selection is closely related to coordination. For a simple example, driving is common throughout the world, but in some countries people drive on the right and in other countries people drive on the left (see coordination game). A framework called comparative institutional analysis is proposed to deal with the game theoretical structural understanding of the variety of social norms.

See also


  • Axelrod, Robert (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books. 
  • Appelbaum, R. P., Carr, D., Duneir, M., Giddens, A., 2009, "Confomity, Deviance, and Crime." Introduction to Sociology, New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., p173.
  • Becker, Howard S, 1982, "Culture: A Sociological View," Yale Review, 71(4): 513–27
  • Bicchieri, Cristina. 2006. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Blumer, Herbert, 1956, "Sociological Analysis and the 'Variable,'" American Sociological Review, 21(6): 683–90
  • Boyd, Robert and Peter J. Richerson, 1985, Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Burt, Ronald S, 1987, "Social Contagion and Innovation: Cohesive Versus Structural Equivalence," American Journal of Sociology 92(6): 1287–1335
  • Cialdini, R., 2007, Descriptive Social Norms as Underappreciated Sources of Social Control, Psychometrika, vol. 72, no. 2, 263–268,
  • Durkheim, Emile, 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York: Free Press
  • Elster, Jon, 1989, Social norms and economic theory, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 3, no. 4, 99–117
  • Fehr, Ernst, Urs Fischbacher, and Simon Gächter, 2002, Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms, Human Nature, 13, 1–25
  • Fine, Gary Alan, 2001, Social Norms, ed. by Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp, New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation
  • Greif, Avner. 1994. "Cultural Beliefs and the Organization of Society: A Historical and Theoretical Reflection on Collectivist and Individualist Societies." The Journal of Political Economy, vol. 102, No. 5: 912–50.
  • Hechter, Michael and Karl-Dieter Opp, eds, 2001, Social Norms, New York:Russell Sage Foundation
  • Heiss, Jerold, 1981, "Social Roles," In Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives, edited by Morris Rosenburg and Ralph H. Turner, New York: Basic Books.
  • Hochschild, Arlie, 1989, "The Economy of Gratitude," In The Sociology of Emotions: Original Essays and Research Papers, edited by David D. Franks and E. Doyle McCarthy, Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press
  • Horne, Christine, 2001, Social Norms, ed. by Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp, New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation
  • Kahneman and Miller (1986) Norm Theory: Comparing reality to its alternatives, Psychological Review, 80, 136–153
  • Kollock, Peter, 1994. "The Emergence of Exchange Structures: An Experimental Study of Uncertainty, Commitment, and Trust." American Journal of Sociology 100(2): 313–45
  • Kohn, Melvin L, 1977, Class and Conformity: A Study in Values, 2d ed Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Macy, Michael W and John Skvoretz, 1998, "The Evolution of Trust and Cooperation Between Strangers: A Computational Model," American Sociological Review, 63(5): 638–60
  • Mark, Noah, 1998, "Birds of a Feather Sing Together," Social Forces 77(2): 453–85
  • McElreath, R.; Boyd, R.; Richerson, P.J. (2003). "Shared norms and the evolution of ethnic markers". Current Anthropology 44 (1): 122–129. doi:10.1086/345689. 
  • Opp, Karl-Dieter, 1982, "The Evolutionary Emergence of Norms," British Journal of Social Psychology, 21(2): 139–49
  • Posner, Eric, 1996, "The Regulation of Solidary Groups: The Influence of Legal and Nonlegal Sanctions on Collective Action," University of Chicago Law Review 63(1): 133–97 [1]
  • Posner, Eric. 2000. Law and Social Norms. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press
  • Prentice, D. A. and Miller, D. T. (1993) Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256
  • Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., 2007, The Constructive, Destructive, and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms, Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 5, 429–434, 2007 [2]
  • Scott, John Finley, 1971, Internalization of Norms: A Sociological Theory of Moral Commitment, Englewoods Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice–Hall
  • Ullmann-Margalit, Edna, 1977, The Emergence of Norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Yamagishi, Toshio, Karen S. Cook, and Motoki Watabe. 1998. "Uncertainty, Trust, and Commitment Formation in the United States and Japan," American Journal of Sociology, 104(1), 165–94
  • Young, H. Peyton, 2008. "social norms." The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition. Abstract.


  1. ^ Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume (Eds), 'Social Norms' in New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Second Edition, London: Macmillan, (forthcoming)
  2. ^ Kamau, C. (2009) Strategising impression management in corporations: cultural knowledge as capital. In D. Harorimana (Ed) Cultural implications of knowledge sharing, management and transfer: identifying competitive advantage. Chapter 4. Information Science Reference. ISBN 978-1-60566-790-4
  3. ^ Cialdini, Robert B.; Reno, Raymond R., & Kallgren, Carl J. (1990). "A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 (6): 1015–1026. 
  4. ^ Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, Griskevicius. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science 18 (5) pp 429–434
  5. ^ Bicchieri, Cristina. 2006. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, New York: Cambridge University Press, Ch. 1

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