How Social Norms Affect Our Decisions

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

As an adjunct instructor in human services, I try to bring seemingly dry concepts to life for my students. A recent discussion focused on the idea of social norms and their role in society as well as our everyday lives. Noting my students’ fading energy reserves (I teach an evening class), I asked them:

  • Have you ever altered the way you act in public because you felt you had to behave in a certain way?
  • What happens when you don’t act the way people expect you to behave?
  • Do you expect others to act according to certain expectations depending on their age, occupation, or relationship to you?

The students perked up, because of course these scenarios rang true for each of them. That’s because social norms – expectations that inform us how we’re supposed to behave in certain situations – are ubiquitous in our society. I explained that social norms have four qualities:

  • They tell us what to do and what not to do
  • They are socially shared (in other words, most people have a general understanding and awareness of the norm)
  • They carry an element of control or sanction, which can invoke feelings of guilt or fear if the social norm is not met
  • They can actually constrain behavior – or at least highly influence it

We all know how to act in a library as opposed to how to act at a rock concert. And we all know what will happen to us if we act like we’re at a rock concert when we’re actually at the library. In other words, we make decisions every day – many times over – about how to act based on the social norms that dictate our social environments.

But social norms work on us more deeply than what’s evident in these humorous examples. Social norms sometimes influence major life decisions such as how to treat people, what career path to take, how to vote, and when and whom to marry.

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A recent study in the journal Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience illuminated the extent to which social norms play a role in our decision making. Using brain imaging data, the researchers built a computational model that supported the notion that social norms influenced decisions more than a desire for fairness.

Wow! If this model holds up to additional research, this would suggest that when faced with a tough, possibly ethically-laden choice, we’re more likely to do what we think society wants us to do instead of what we feel in our hearts is fair or morally right.

Granted, sometimes what society wants us to do and what we feel in our hearts is truly the best action are one and the same. Don’t we love it when that happens? But what about those times when we feel pulled by social expectations (think “peer pressure”) as well as by our own values and principles? Those are the tough choices that truly define who we are.

I didn’t come across this study until after I’d delivered my class lecture on social norms. I think I have my discussion prompt for next week.


Chang, L. J., & Sanfey, A. G. (2013). Great expectations: Neural computations underlying the use of social norms in decision making. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience, 8(3), 277-284.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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