Experiments with People: Revelations from Social Psychology

By Robert P. Abelson; Kurt P. Frey et al. | Go to book overview

17
Going Along
to Get Along:
Conformity
to Group Norms

“Social man is a somnambulist. ”

—Gabriel de Tarde (1843–1904), French sociologist and criminologist


BACKGROUND

Human social life is structured by norms: rules, shared by a group of people, about what beliefs and behaviors are appropriate. Norms prescribe certain practices (you should think or do this) and proscribe others (you should not think or do that). Most social situations are governed by norms: a job interview, a first date, dining at a classy restaurant, a college lecture, a wedding or funeral, even riding in an elevator. Crammed into one recently, I simply announced: “14 please, ” and someone in the opposite corner (whom I could not see) pushed 14. This simple rule greased the wheels of social interaction. In my mind I counted at least four or five other elevator norms.

Norms can exist at the level of entire nations or cultures, and some are almost universal. The norm of social responsibility stresses one's duty to help people in desperate need: a crying child, apparently lost or hurt, is everyone's responsibility. The norm of reciprocity requires one to repay others' gifts or favors: being mailed a packet of personalize address labels by the Paraplegic Society makes it hard to not send back a requested donation. However, although there are some universal norms, cultures differ, often greatly, in what they expect or accept from their members. One group values promptness (“come on time or don't come at all”), while another values spontaneity (“come when you get here”). One accepts premarital sex, another places a

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