Weekly Blog #21 - A take on conformity and social norms...

Over the weekend some of the restrictions regarding where and when to wear a face-mask here in Shanghai have been lifted by the CDC. You are now allowed to walk the streets without a mask, but in case you want to go to a mall, cinema, museum, gallery, the metro, bus or other means of transportation you are supposed to wear a mask.


We've been following these instructions albeit controversial reports about if and how masks really help, etc... Personally speaking, the main reason I wore a mask from "day 1" is to adhere to social norms.


Most of the time we are adopting social norms and following general behavior without thinking too much about it. But as soon as we realize that we've been following some sort of social norm we tend to question it and not seldomly try to deviate from it. But why are we subconsciously attracted to social norms? And why do people in the "educated world" oftentimes think badly of them and deliberately try to digress and stand out from the masses?


I found this quite peculiar so I did a bit of research and collected a few insights that I would like to share.

Social norms and social influence...


In general, people's behavior is oftentimes defined by social norms, may it be trends in music, food, clothing, our public behavior, how we speak and even what we think. From a sociological perspective, social norms are informal understandings that govern the behavior of members of a society.


Social influence, however, refers to the way in which individuals change their behavior to meet the demands of a social environment. According to Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman there are three broad varieties of social influence:


  1. Compliance (or group acceptance) is when people appear to agree with others but actually keep their dissenting opinions private.

  2. Identification is when people are influenced by someone who is liked and respected, such as a famous celebrity.

  3. Internalization is when people accept a belief or behavior and agree both publicly and privately.


The efficacy of social norms and their impact or influence on us define our levels of "conformity" and "deviance" (or non-conformity).


Conformity and deviance...


It may not be 100% scientifically correct but in psychological terms there are two major reasons that lead to behavioral conformity or deviance: informational social influence and normative social influence.


The term conformity is often used to indicate an agreement to the majority position, brought about either by a desire to be correct (informational) or because of a desire to "fit in" or be liked (normative).


We are subject to informational social influence especially in situations where we want to do something right and make the best decisions but lack important information and therefore feel uncertain. To solve this we are gather information especially by observing other people's behavior. The more believable the other person (e.g. experts, scientists), the more likely we copy their behavior.


Normative social influence, also called "normative pressure", occurs most often when people want to be accepted by others. Normative pressure may take different forms, for example bullying, persuasion, teasing, criticism, etc..


One of the most famous experiments on normative social influence was conducted by Solomon Asch in 1951. Using a so called "line judgment task", Asch put a naive participant in a room with seven confederates. The confederates had agreed in advance what their responses would be when presented with the task. The real participant did not know this and was led to believe that the other seven confederates were also real participants like themselves.

Each person in the room had to state aloud which comparison line (A, B or C) was most like the target line. The answer was always obvious. The real participant sat at the end of the row and gave his or her answer last. Asch measured the number of times each participant conformed to the majority view.


On average, about one third (32%) of the participants who were placed in this situation went along and conformed with the clearly incorrect majority on the critical trials. Over the 12 critical trials, about 75% of participants conformed at least once, and 25% of participants never conformed. When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar". Just FYI: In the control group, with no pressure to conform to confederates, less than 1% of participants gave the wrong answer.

My take on conformity and social norms...


Getting to understand this topic a bit better, I have been observing the people on the streets over the past few weeks. There are certain studies that show that collectivist cultures, especially in the Asia-pacific region, tend to adopt social norms faster and embrace conformity more than individualistic cultures. So it's been no surprise that 99% of the people I saw adopted the mask as part of their daily wardrobe within a few days. On the other hand it also didn't come as a surprise that whenever I saw someone not wearing a mask, it was typically an individual from a western country. Realizing this and trying to make up my mind about it I came across a certain pattern or associative chain that is not scientific by any means but might serve as an explanation in some cases.


First and foremost it's important to understand that public shaming and blaming is not part of the Chinese culture. Rules are being enforced by authorities, only in very rare cases you would find an individual reprimand another individual. Therefore you wouldn't expect anyone to call out someone without a mask on the streets. Most westerners living here know that.


The second part of my associative chain is linked to what I've described above: people from individualistic cultures try to question social norms and - especially when they figure out that these norms are not backed by science or experts - try to deviate from them, ergo: they take of the mask because media and scientists said they don't protect you.


But here comes the catch: if you chose to live in a collectivist culture and be part of it - why would you deliberately deviate from social norms that 1. won't harm you and 2. show that you care about the collective effort - even if it might not be the most effective way? Why do you have to protest against a social norm that is not harming you? Do you have to show your environment that you think you know better?


My take on this is simple: of course I will continue to reflect on whether or not a social norm is worth adopting - it's in my nature. But as soon as I realize that some norms are part of a specific culture and that conformity won't hurt me as an individual but rather strengthen the society I will think twice about deviating. It might sound sheepish for some - but knowingly adhering to norms and embracing conformity from time to time doesn't make you a sheep. It much rather shows that you understand the bigger picture.

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