The Influence of Social Norms on the Human Behaviour

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Social norms act as an unspoken rule within society. It describes the process of how an individual changes their behaviour based on the social group or the culture they are in, whether this be to gain approval or to avoid social disapproval. These rules provide us with an expected idea of how to behave and will change depending on the situation, an individual will be expected to behave very differently in a work environment then they would in a group of friends. The behaviour that is performed to fulfil these rules is called conformity. Societal norms are created to give a sense of direction and of order in human society. Without these norms, not only would we not know how to act we would be unable to understand or assess one another's actions, and as such be unable to build significant social relationships due to the lack of predictability an absence of norms would provide. These rules may be implicit, such as behaviour at a funeral, or explicit, such as those provided by the law. Without these rules we could not coexist, as we are fundamentally social creatures and without such rules in place we would perish. Without social norms we are presented without a form of direction, a sense of how to behave and an inability to judge the thoughts and behaviours of those around us. Study into the field of social influence, particularly conformity, has led to dramatic changes in how we perceive real world events, one major example of this being Zimbardo’s (1973) Stanford Prison Experiment and it's relevancy to Abu Graib.

Conformity is certainly not a bad thing. Conformity grants an individual a sense of purpose, as societal animals we have an innate preference not only just to be around others but also to fit in with them. To not fit in is to stand out, and from an evolutionary perspective to stand out would be to put oneself in a situation where they can be easily targeted and attacked and as such be less likely to survive, hence why even a young infant would choose to be around peers then to stand alone. Social norms and conforming to them, can also grant a degree of freedom in the anonymity they provide. When an individual becomes part of a group the responsibility of the group is shared or more commonly placed upon the leader, taking the stress of responsibility away from the individual. For example a bailiff may be able to repossess a family's possessions without guilt as to them they are performing as they are expected to, as it is their role within society to do so. An extreme instance of this was when conformity was used to explain the abuse of Iraqi soldiers by US guards in Abu Graib in 2002, Zimbardo suggested that this was due to the lack of authority, lack of training and sheer boredom. Thus the soldiers conformed to the role of guard that had been set upon them, and placed any guilt they had on the responsibility of social norms of playing guard. This example was a key indicator that it was important to fully understand the extent social norms play and how they can be misinterpreted or abused and how to avoid situations such as Abu Graib.

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One of the key theorists behind social influence was Kelman (1958) who proposed that there are three types of conformity to social norms. The first being compliance, where an individual will undergo social comparison when provided with an alternative view and as such adapt their own actions in order to conform to a group, so that they can fit in temporarily without resulting in a change to the individuals underlying attitude. Internalisation occurs when individuals conform due to an acceptance, when presented with an alternative opinion they engage in a validation processes comparing their own beliefs to the proposed, which can then lead to acceptance both publicly and privately. The third type of conformity is identification. If an individual wants to be seen as part of a particular due to the perceived benefits that association holds.

The individual will adopt behaviour and attitude both publicly and privately. To conform to the social norms of that particular group will result in outsiders perceiving the individual as part of the collective. However a key criticism of these classifications has to be made as it can become difficult to distinguish between compliance and internalisation as it complicated by how we measure public compliance and private acceptance. For example it is presumed that to agree in public yet disagree in private is compliance however it is possible that the individual simply forgot the argument posed to them by the group or that new information has been given causing them undergo the validation process once more to form a different belief. As such the measure of the types of conformity defined by Kelman can be seen as being somewhat ambiguous however the classification may still be useful as a tool in further studies. Niall (1986) and Kelman (1958) later developed a theory on why conformity occurs and distinguished two separate types of social influence. Normative social influence, the desire to fit in, and information social influence, the desire to be correct. Furthermore, research into normative social influence, the conformity to social norms, has resulted in effective application in the real world. Linkenbach and Perkins (2003) in a US study found that teenagers were less likely to take up smoking if they had been exposed to a simple message saying that the majority of their peers did not smoke this is known as normative social influence. The students then understood the behaviour of not smoking as part of the norm for students, therefore to fit in with their role of student they should not smoke. This is an example of how normative social influence has been adopted by authority figures to manipulate the behaviour of the public and it is has been shown that similar methods are used constantly throughout the media.

Study into social norms and their influence into human has also led to discussion into an individual’s innate motivation for a positive self-concept in order to attain a sense of fulfilment. A way to enhance ones self-concept would be by behaving consistently with their actions, statements and beliefs and as such provides a degree of explanation for the results that studies into conformity to social norms have yielded. This also supports the ‘Foot-in-the-door’ technique (FITD. Freedman and Fraser 1966). This is a compliance strategy used to take advantage of an individual’s basic desire for consistency in an effort to get them to comply. This technique involves asking an individual to comply with a request so minimally invasive that they are almost certain to comply, once they have complied either the same researcher or a confederate ask another, more invasive request that is often related to the original. Studies into this have found that groups who were asked the original question prior to the latter complied far more than those who were never asked the original pilot question. Freedman and Fraser (1966) speculated that this was due to major process underlying the FITD effect, the effect being one of a change in self-perception. When an individual complies with the pilot request they set up an expectation for themselves, they have inadvertently written a social norm of certain traits that they have ascribed to themselves, that they alone now feel obliged to comply with. It is this change in self-view that leads to further compliance. It could be argued that this effect has been seen in one of the most well renowned studies in social influence in Milgram’s (1963) study in obedience.

Whilst there were many other factors at play in this study such as authoritive figures, the proximity of the order and the legitimacy of the authority present, one of the biggest variables within the study was that of incrimentation. During Milgrams study participants were ordered by an authoritve figure to deliver shocks to a confederate by turning a dial, this dial went from ‘safe’ to ‘XXX’ indicating lethal. When participants were asked to immediately deliver a lethal shock very few of them complied, however when they were asked to give incrementally increasing shocks almost 65% of participants (26 out of 40) would go on to deliver the lethal shock. The FITD technique and the role of social norms in self-perception can not account for all this completely but shows that an argument can be made for its relevance.

Sherrif (1936) once described norms as 'jointly negotiated rules for social behavior, the customs, traditions, standards, rules, values and fashions which are standardized as a consequence of the contact of individuals'. As such it can be fairly said that social norms play a direct role in almost every aspect of human behaviour. Social norms give us a sense of direction not only towards those around us but also intrinsically, not only do we follow a script for how to act, we also follow a script for how to react. Due to this it can be concluded that social norms are one of the strict laws that keeps human society together.

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