Understanding the influence of social norms

We all like to think that we are individual, unique, and have free will. Well, that is true to an extent, but there are implicit and explicit influences on our behaviour that exert pressure to conform to social norms.


It is known that wherever there is a group of people, a culture will form. This has been observed in a training room when new participants arrive. They sit in the same seats every day so that it becomes ‘theirs’. The need to have a physical place is the first sign of belonging in the group.


Once a physical place is established, ‘markers’ are used within communication to set boundaries. These include body language cues as well as linguistics. It is normal for a certain amount of subliminal mimicking to take place during this settling in period.


Eventually, the unwritten rules are subconsciously agreed and accepted by the group. Further, the group will protect these rules by ‘nudging’ new members to conform. As new members are also keen to fit in they are usually quite willing to be nudged. Of course, there are exceptions.


We connect with like-minded people


If a new member does not like what the group has to offer, they will seek out another group (or form a new one). Likewise, if a new member doesn’t conform to the norms of the group, they are rejected.


If there are enough members with the same needs, then a new group is easily formed. Connections are made with individuals that are similar because this normalises them and therefore, there is less pressure to change. New members are primed to pick up on collective patterns to know what is appropriate and what will get them the most support. Groups tend to nurture their members, which makes them feel protected, and this creates a reciprocal cycle and provokes further compliance to the group’s rules.


The four ways in which group norms are created and maintained

  1. Injunctive: these norms are created by the guiding nudges from the group to new members so that ‘good’ conformity is rewarded by group acceptance.
  3. Descriptive: these norms are created from observing how the majority of people behave and are adopted so that the group sees the new member as being ‘one of us’.
  5. Subjective: these norms are not constant, which means that a norm that is appropriate in one situation may differ in another and the new member has to learn these nuances.
  7. Individual: these are the personal characteristics of each member that are accepted by the group, e.g. the funny one, the clever one, etc.

A 2005 study showed that there is another influencer on levels of conformity. It states that women show no preference towards explicit rules or implicit rules while men are far more likely to only follow implicit rules (those of their group). According to the study, this is because men have a greater tendency towards psychological reactance, which means they don’t like to be explicitly told to conform (usually by authority).


It seems that directly enforcing conformity to rules onto men will only gain their resistance. Understanding this propensity for non-conformance to imposed rules certainly goes some way to explaining why Health and Safety is still being rejected by those it is meant to protect.


Any culture change programme must take into account that social norms will have a greater influence on safety behaviours than campaigns and initiatives. Adjusting to an experiential programme of change will have the biggest impact on group norms and if this can be achieved, the group will adopt new attitudes and behaviours that they will then socialise to new members, thus creating, maintaining, and sustaining new norms.