There are a myriad of societal norms that we all do every day, like shaking someone’s hand when you meet them or following a dress code. These purposeful acts of conformity keep a community or nation moving along smoothly and allow everyone in a group or society to be on the same page, like a social contract if you will, one that most people “sign” willingly. How these social norms form, why we latch onto them, and what makes them change, both in positive and negative ways, can lead us to better understand our own everyday behavior.
Your beliefs guide your behavior, mostly. But other people have a pretty strong influence over that behavior in two ways: what they do and what they approve of. There are essentially two types of norms: personal norms, in other words your own internal standards of conduct and social norms or perceived standards of everyone else – what are your peers doing and what do they think is a good thing to do. This is otherwise known as The Social Proof Theory designed by psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, which says that a person who does not know what the proper behavior for a certain situation is, will look to peers and imitate what they are doing as a way to find guidance for their own behavior. These days, you might look to see if everyone is wearing a mask during their outdoor walk to see if you should too. “In general,” according to Cialdini, “when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.”
The Social Proof Theory, because of its effectiveness, is used heavily in marketing with tactics like celebrity endorsements, influencers, and crowd wisdom – the idea being, if everyone is using the product/celebrities want it/influencers do it, you will want to as well. If you have scoured Amazon reviews before buying a product or tried a brand because your favorite celebrity endorsed it, you are proof the theory works.
But what happens when societal norm change? Sometimes that is a good thing, racism and sexism were once social norms. Technology like the cell phone or social impacts like the civil rights movement and women’s movement, for instance, changed what is accepted by society and what our norms are. Essentially, people looked at their peers for guidance at uncertain times and saw that what they were doing was no longer accepted.
Now we are in a time when social norms are going to change quite dramatically. Two months ago, it would have seemed absurd, and quite rude, to steer clear of someone walking towards you on a sidewalk. Six months ago, people at the grocery store would have noticed if you were wearing a face mask. “You’re looking around to see what people are doing,” says Gretchen Chapman, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, “If you take your cues from other people, you might be more inclined to take strong action yourself because you see other people doing it.”
A year from now when you are fist bumping instead of shaking a colleague’s hand or you’re a business executive collaborating with TikTok, it will be because social norms have changed. People around the world, in this time of uncertainty are looking around for guidance from each other. Some of the best social norms will go back to being, well, normal like hugging a friend and meeting for coffee – and some won’t. But, as we ride this shift in what is normal, we need to continue to take this opportunity to embrace humanity; we can still collaborate, virtually connect, communicate and change our world. Society hasn’t changed what’s important, just what is necessary.