Zooming in on social norms (sidebar)

This is a sidebar to my earlier post about social norms as one of the solutions to social cruelty online.

Social norms are practically super powers. As I mentioned in my main post, this doesn’t occur to us much because, well, these are norms, after all – part of the wallpaper, socially speaking. They’re everyday behavior based on intangibles like a family’s, peer group’s or community’s values, habits of thought and living. They can be good or bad, of course, depending on the particular group, but the bigger the group the better the norms are because pro-social works better for more people than anti-social behavioral norms do.

And those norms are powerful. “People want to conform to the customary practices and ideals of their reference group because they will be stigmatized if they fail to do so,” wrote Oxford University professor Peyton Young in a paper on the subject.

Note the term “reference group” – that means the group we compare ourselves to in order to evaluate ourselves. “The way we do things” in this family or peer group or community becomes a member’s standard of reference. Our very identity – how we identify ourselves – is bound up in this. That’s what I mean by powerful. The behavioral norms of the groups we identify with shape us and influence our actions.

A sampler of social norms, for example:

  • “In our school community, people are respectful toward one another.”
  • “We never tag someone in a photo that could embarrass them” (a peer group one).
  • “No faces in sexting photos” (not that sexting is a norm at this high school, but – when it does happen there – I was told this is the norm).
  • A collective agreement not to gossip can help chill out the “drama” that gives rise to cyberbullying and other social cruelty.
  • “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” (remember that one?).
  • “No one in our family ever texts while driving” (this norm needs to spread fast!).
  • “Be present when you’re in people’s presence” (many families have this one; it’s also good for when talking on the phone, playing a videogame or any other social activity online or offline).
  • The well-known one that starts with “Do unto others…” and actually has parallels in about every culture and faith tradition on the planet.
  • Totally mundane examples: frequency of bathing, how clothes are worn, chewing with mouths closed, tipping, shaking hands after a hockey game or tennis match, etc., etc.
  • What are your family’s, friends’, club’s norms?

Society has only begun to look at social norms’ impact in digital spaces (because this kind of space is so new to humanity), but we need to because we know of their power for good, because we know that social media tend to be very public and because we know that “the more public an object or behavior is, the more likely it is to spread,” the Wall Street Journal cited University of Pennsylvania professor Jonah Berger as saying. We also have research evidence that people’s behavior changes as their perception about their community’s norms change. In other words, giving people the facts about their community – where “the majority holds healthy attitudes and exhibits responsible behavior most of the time,” professor Wesley Perkins at Hobart and William Smith Colleges writes) – influences their behavior for good.

So if we can stop spreading fear and start telling the truth about social media and its users, we can start harnessing the power of social norms to protect users and effect positive social change online and offline. Social norms are definitely in the toolbox of solutions to social cruelty.

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