Strong social norms help people view the world as simple and coherent


People who feel a lack of personal control in their lives are more likely to prefer a culture that imposes order, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

These “tighter” cultures, in turn, perpetuate their existence by reducing individuals’ sense of personal control and increasing their sense of collective control.

“Strong social norms – a core feature of tight cultures – help people view the world as simple and coherent. As strong norms guide people’s behaviors and allow them to predict others’ behaviors, they can provide a significant source of order and predictability in everyday social life,” said lead author Anyi Ma, PhD, of Tulane University.

“So, when people lack control and desire structure, they may come to prefer tighter cultures.”

The research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers analyzed survey data and conducted a series of experiments to better understand how a sense of personal control can affect a preference for cultural tightness, and how cultural tightness can affect people’s sense of personal control.

First, the researchers looked at data from more than 5,700 participants from the Midlife in United States survey, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of health and well-being. Data were collected in two waves: 2004-2006 and 2013-2014.

As part of the survey, participants were asked a series of questions designed to assess their perceived level of personal control. Participants in both waves were also asked, “Thinking back over all the places you’ve lived during your lifetime, including where you live now, which state would you most like to live in for the next 10 years if you could easily move there now?”

Researchers used scores for tightness and looseness of individual states calculated by researchers from the University of Maryland in 2014. Scores for each state were derived using an established measure that included criteria such as strength of punishment (e.g., the legality of corporal punishment, punitiveness of laws), latitude/permissiveness (access to alcohol), diversity (as measured by the percentage of total population that is foreign) and prevalence and strength of institutions (e.g., how religious the population is).

Individuals who reported lower levels of perceived personal control were significantly more likely to express a preference for states that scored higher in societal tightness. These findings remained true, and even strengthened, after controlling for participants’ gender, age, income and education.

The researchers also conducted a survey of 225 employees from a large apparel retailer in southern China. As part of a larger study, participants were asked to respond on a seven-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree) to a series of statements on their perceived level of control (e.g., “I am in control of my life”), their need for structure (e.g., “I hate to change my plans at the last minute”) and their preference for a tighter organizational culture (e.g., “My company should have more social norms that people should abide by”).

Similar to the findings from the MIDUS survey, participants who expressed lower levels of personal control were more likely to express a preference for a tighter organizational structure.

Additionally, employees who reported lower levels of personal control were more likely to express a higher need for structure and those with a higher need for structure were more likely to express a preference for a tighter organizational culture.

In another experiment, researchers found participants who expressed low levels of personal control were more likely to reward prosocial or punish selfish behavior of an anonymous individual within a simulated computer game.

Researchers also tested whether being in a tight culture reduces people’s perceptions of personal control. A total of 98 participants, recruited online, were randomly assigned to read a description of a company that either had a tight or a loose organizational culture and asked to imagine they had accepted a job there.

Participants who were asked to imagine working for a company with a tight culture perceived significantly lower personal control than those asked to imagine working for a company with a loose culture.

A separate but similar experiment, comprising 96 online participants, also asked individuals to imagine working for a company with tight or loose organizational cultures, but instead of asking about personal control, individuals were asked to respond to a series of statements designed to measure their sense of collective control (e.g., “I would feel that employees in the company can work together to control the fate of the company”).

Results from these experiments provide evidence for the idea that tight cultures lower people’s feelings of personal control but increase their sense of collective control, according to Ma.

“Scholars have argued that tight cultures evolved as a way for people to collectively mitigate societal threats. We support this idea by showing that being in a tight culture increases people’s perceptions of collective control, which makes them feel more confident in overcoming external threats as a group,” she said.

“The increased collective control afforded by tight cultures might be especially important in the current COVID-19 pandemic, in which a coordinated collective response is vital for survival.”

While much of the findings were not surprising because of a robust base of theory and research supporting them, Ma said she still finds it amazing that an individual’s feelings of personal control can have such an overwhelming effect on society as a whole.

“Before doing this research, I used to think that we are products of the culture we live in,” she said. “The idea that we are individual beings capable of shaping the cultures that we live in is absolutely fascinating to me.”

Administrators, policymakers and practitioners are increasingly aware of how transforming individual and collective trends of behavior is essential to achieve their goals [1,2,3]. Tackling the challenges in environmental and social sustainability that our planet currently faces cannot be done without important and long-term transformations on the everyday behaviors of individuals: “Desirable goals, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions, reducing waste, and increasing energy and water efficiency can be met only if high levels of public participation are achieved” ([4], p. 544).

Such behavioral changes do not occur spontaneously as policies are established; therefore “behavioral change” must be designed. Because of this, even the best meaning and most sophisticated management systems, policies, laws or programs require some behavioral change in their targets to succeed, and can often fail if these changes do not happen [5,6,7].

There are many theories of behavior and of behavioral change [1,8]; here we shall focus on one of the most popular, the use of social norms.

Influencing social norms, or the rules that describe what a certain reference group considers to be typical or desirable behavior in certain contexts and situations [9], is a popular way in which researchers and practitioners attempt to transform behavior in real-world contexts [3,8,10,11,12,13].

These initiatives have often focused on behavioral changes that increase the environmental and social sustainability of their target contexts. Successful examples include both challenges directly related to environmental issues such as energy and water consumption [14,15], sustainable transport use [16,17], recycling [18,19] and food choices [20,21,22], as well as broader social sustainability issues such as alcohol consumption [23], hygiene [24,25], and harassment and violence [6,26].

In these and other realms, since “humans are especially motivated to understand and to follow the norms of groups that we belong to and care about” ([3], p. 184), changing the perceptions we have about social norms is a powerful and cost-effective way of creating or reinforcing collective changes in behavior.

Furthermore, since social norms are based on mutual regulation between social actors [6,7], it can also reduce the need for the costly authoritative enforcement or attitudinal change that many change initiatives attempt by using the “vigilante effect” through which members of a society tend, in situation, to enforce “correct” behavior in others ([27], pp. 140–144).

The power of social norms in behavioral change does not come only from the natural inclination to imitate others or from the necessity to know what is appropriate to do in a given situation, but it is also rooted in the human desire to belong to one’s community. As Kurt Lewin aptly noted in his seminal paper on behavioral change, humans fear to stand out from the group: “the unwillingness of the individual to depart too far from group standards” ([28], p. 273) is a strong lever to influence behavior.

Social norms have been a central topic in psychological research for a long time [29,30,31,32]. Researchers in this and other fields have found relevant behavioral effects of interventions based on social norms in a very wide variety of domains, from pro-environmental behaviors [14,16,18,33] to violence and harassment [34,35,36], and from health related and risk behaviors [24,37,38,39] to gambling [40,41], to mention just a few examples.

By testing some of the mechanisms and contexts in which social norms can have relevant effects, these field studies are an important resource for both practitioners and researchers to design more effective interventions to address all kinds of policy and social challenges.

Recent popular and influential texts that explore the topic of social norms [2,23,34] have described some of the practical mechanisms that have been used to achieve behavioral change in social norm interventions. These include, for example, the Social Norm marketing approach, the Personalized Normative Feedback approach, focus groups discussions [23], media campaigns [2,34], and also legal means, economic incentives, and deliberation [2]. Nevertheless, a systematic exploration of how these and other intervention mechanisms have been applied in the empirical literature was still lacking and could greatly inform the design and research of social norm interventions to increase sustainability in real-world contexts.

In this paper, we present such a review from a wide sample of over 90 empirical studies that have applied behavioral change interventions based on social norms in field settings. Our objective is not to evaluate or compare the reported efficacy of these interventions (which is for us a second, more difficult step and would require different methods and a different sample), but rather to explore how researchers have leveraged these sources of information to influence normative perceptions and behaviors.

By doing this, our goal is to present an overview of current practice in a systematic analytic framework that is useful for researchers and practitioners. In this way, we hope to both contribute to a better understanding of how these interventions are applied in the literature, and also to inform the systematic testing and application of more effective and sustainable interventions both inside and outside academic settings.

1.1. Social Norms and Behavioral Change

Social norms determine the behaviors that, among all those that are possible in a given situation, “others (as a group, as a community, as a society…) think are the correct ones, for one reason or another” ([27], p. 124). By defining the socially accepted ways of acting in certain contexts and situations, social norms are a central part of social regulation, the process through which “other stakeholders regulate our activity” ([27], p. 124). By doing this, they also mark our membership and place in a group, how we perceive social situations, how we relate and interact with others, and how we respond to cultural products [29].

Empirical studies in psychology and other disciplines have explored extensively the potential of using interventions based on social norms to transform behavior in real-world settings [3,11,13,23]. These empirical studies have identified a wide variety of general topics of enquiry and moderators that influence the potential of social norms to change behavior. We list a few of the most popular areas of research below, differentiating between those that focus on the importance of the attributes of behaviors and social norms, and those that emphasize the importance of the contexts in which those behaviors and social norms are embedded.

1.1.1. The Importance of the Attributes of Social Norms and Behaviors

One of the best-known distinctions in the social norm literature is the one between norms that describe typical behaviors (called descriptive norms in Cialdini et al.’s Focus Theory [42] and in Bicchieri [2]), and those that describe desirable behaviors (called subjective norms in the Theory of Reasoned Action of Fishbein and Ajzen [43], social norms in Bicchieri [2] and injunctive norms in Cialdini et al. [3], see also [44,45] for further details). While the former (“descriptive norm”) refers to what I perceive to be typical behavior in a situation [3] (what most people do in Cialdini et al. [42]), the latter (“injunctive norm”) refers to what I perceive to be desirable behavior (what most people ought to do in Cialdini at al. [42]).

Several studies have explored the relationship between these two types of norms. There is evidence of descriptive norms having heterogeneous effects depending on the reference behavior levels (which can be desirable or undesirable in the intervention),with “boomerang effects” documented in some cases [18,46,47,48].This has been successfully counteracted by adding injunctive elements to the messages, especially those reinforcing the desirable behaviors [49].

For example, messages about the high prevalence of petrified wood stealing [50] or about how your household consumes less energy than your neighbors’ [51] might lead to increases in undesirable behaviors if injunctive messages (i.e., about social desirability or un-desirability) are not added as well.

In another study about voting behaviors, Gerber et al. [52] also found evidence that descriptive messages about the high prevalence of a target behavior (i.e., thousands people vote so you should too) can be more effective to change behavior than those about low prevalence (i.e. a low proportion of people vote so you should do it) or even injunctive norms (i.e., it’s the right thing to do or it’s a civic duty), especially among people that don’t engage often in the behavior. Injunctive norms, on the other hand, seem to be more effective when combined with accuracy or efficiency goals [53], and when formulated in a positive manner (i.e., “people think you should do this”) in contexts where descriptive norms are weak [54].

Dolcini et al. [55] have also emphasized the importance of taking into account and measuring some basic attributes of social norms such as norm homogeneity, strength and stability, as well as how these characteristics relate to different clusters in the population [55]. Lapinski & Rimal [45] underline how normative influences are determined by basic attributes of behaviors, such as behavioral ambiguity and privacy [24].

1.1.2. The Importance of the Context

The range of activities that people can undertake is not just determined by what is perceived as “socially acceptable”. The physical affordances of the environment and the embodied interpretive systems of subjects also play an important role in locally funneling behavior [27]. In this way, when we decide to keep our place in line at the customs control point, we do not do it only because we read a message that says that most people do it as well. We also imitate others and are directly cued and corrected by specialized personnel and other fellow travelers on the spot, we have internalized norms and skills that indicate how to act in that situation, and there are often physical signs, marks and barriers that funnel the expected behavior.

Installation Theory states that behaviors are, in actual situations, the result of a compound of factors, of three types or “layers”: local affordances of the material context, embodied competences of the subject, and social control. These components coalesce in situ to provide a scaffolding and constraining behavioral “installation” that funnels behavior [27]. Because of that, effective behavioral interventions should not only address the individual’s “internal” factors that could predict behavior (such as representations, competences or perceptions), but also the local installations in which these behaviors are enacted. As a matter of fact, in the generic framework of Installation Theory, which encompasses the widest number of factors, the social norm appears as a limited approach to intervention. Nevertheless, the social norm, as it represents the standard behavior performed in the typical circumstance by the group members (“the way we do around here”), is a handy proxy for adequate behavior that can be reminded to the subjects in interventions and policy implementation. That is why social norms have been instruments of choice for such interventions.

Researchers working on social norm interventions have tested the idea that social norms are context-dependent, situational and require a focus of our attention to affect behavior. Several studies [42,46,49,56] have presented evidence of how the influence of social norms on behavior is not uniform in terms of context or time, but rather depend on them. Other researchers have underlined the importance of the perceptions we have of social norms and the sources we use to gather normative information [3,23,45,57]. As Tankard and Paluck [3] argue, psychologists are concerned, less about the actual rates of behavior of a population (which are more the interest of policymakers), and more about the “community members’ subjective perceptions of the norm” ([3], p. 181). These perceptions “become a reality and a guide for their own behavior, even when the perceptions are inaccurate” [3] (p. 183). The authors also distinguish three main sources that individuals use to gather normative information: the behaviors we see in others, the summary information we receive about a group, and the signals that different institutions send [3]. Also, Prentice and Miller [57] have shown how, in practice, a social norm can still prevail and influence behavior even when it is believed to be unpopular and dysfunctional (a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance).

When we pay attention to a certain social norm, we often do so in relation to a specific reference group that we think engages in and/or approves a certain behavior (for example our friends, our parents, our co-workers, or our neighbors). Consequently, many researchers that have also focused on how we use different reference groups to interpret social norms [35,58,59,60], the networks that organize them [35,61] and our sense of identity in relation to them [62,63]. These researchers have presented evidence on how involving local promotors [59,60], high-profile messengers [64], friends [65], role-models [66], in-groups [67] but also outgroups [57], and geographically and demographically close individuals [68], are all related to higher effectivity of social norm interventions.

1.2. Our Review

Our review emerged from the need to perform a systematic exploration into the intervention strategies and mechanisms used in behavioral change interventions based on social norms. Unfortunately, many researchers limit themselves to exploring the conceptual and research dimensions of behavioral change interventions without paying much attention to how these ideas and findings can inform and improve the practical design and implementation processes of such interventions. As Davis et al. ([69], p. 2218) argue, “while the social norms approach is based in a rich theory, the theory does little to illuminate implementation details of interventions”.

Nevertheless, as already mentioned, there are authors that have explored a limited number of practical mechanisms that have been used in social norm interventions [2,23,34]. Also, in one of the better-known examples outside the realm of social norms, Michie et al. [70,71] have identified 93 behavioral change techniques to report the intervention procedures of any kind of behavioral change intervention. Although relevant and useful, these techniques don’t directly consider social regulation and its related mechanisms, but rather, in a more general way, processes such as social support or comparison of behaviors.

Based on a broad systematic sample, our review aims to produce a first overview of some of the main intervention strategies and mechanisms used specifically in field social norm interventions. With this objective in mind, and taking into account the previous literature on the subject, we focus on four areas of enquiry that are particularly relevant for the difficult task of developing intervention strategies once a diagnosis has been conducted [72]. These four areas pertain to:

(1) Context of application (situated vs remote). The contexts in which intervention mechanisms are applied relative to the target behavior (specifically, following Lahlou [27], whether they are applied in the context where the target behavior happens or away from it)

(2) Type of normative information (group summary information vs exposure to behaviors and opinions). The type of normative information that are intentionally leveraged in the intervention to influence behavior (specifically, following Tankard & Paluck [3], whether interventions rely on group summary information or exposure to the behaviors of others)

(3) Intervention mechanisms. The different intervention mechanisms that are used to leverage the physical, psychological and social determinants of behavior (following Lahlou [27])

(4) Combination of mechanisms. How the previous three elements are combined in the studies in the literature

In this paper, we first present the method of the systematic review and the basic characteristics of the sample we obtained. Then, we present and discuss the results we obtained in these four areas. Finally, we present some recommendations based on them to inform the design of more integral, effective and sustainable real-world interventions based on social norms.

reference link :

Original Research: Open access.
The Mutual Constitution of Culture and Psyche: The Bidirectional Relationship between Individuals’ Perceived Control and Cultural Tightness-Looseness” by Anyi Ma et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


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