- Joanne R. SmithJoanne R. SmithUniversity of Exeter, Department of Psychology
As social animals, humans are strongly influenced by the opinions and actions of those around them. Group norms are the expectations and behaviors associated with a social group, such as a nationality, an organization, or a sports team. Group norms can emerge during group interaction as group members are exposed to the opinions, or observe the actions, of fellow group members. Group norms can also emerge by comparing the attitudes and actions of the group with other groups. Leaders can also influence what is seen to be acceptable behaviors for group members to exhibit.
One of the most dominant approaches to the study of group norms is the social identity approach. The social identity approach proposes that belonging to a social group provides individuals with a definition of who one is, and a description and prescription of what is involved in being a group member. A large body of research has confirmed the power of group norms to determine the form and direction of group members’ attitudes and actions, particularly those individuals strongly attached to the group, across many behavioral domains.
In thinking about group norms, it is important to recognize that norms have both prescriptive (i.e., what should be done) and descriptive (i.e., what is done) elements. Research has found that group norms are most influential when aligned, but that misaligned or conflicting norms—either within the group or across multiple groups to which an individual belongs—can be particularly harmful in terms of engagement in a desired behavior. It is critical to appreciate and understand these complexities to be able to change group norms and, therefore, group members’ actions.
The insight that group norms are powerful determinants of behavior has been incorporated into behavior change interventions, including so-called “nudge” interventions. However, norms-based campaigns are not always successful, and can even lead to backlash effects, often because change agents have failed to consider identity-related processes, such as the role of leaders, the source of the influence attempt, and threats arising from attempts to change one’s group. Shared identity is a key mechanism through which people internalize (new) understandings of what it means to be a group member into the self-concept, and understanding these processes may lead to more enduring change in underlying motives, beliefs, and behavior.