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How Social Norms Influence Our Behaviour Psychology Essay

How Social Norms Influence Our Behaviour Psychology Essay

A social norm is a regulation or expectancy that dominates peoples morals, beliefs, actions, attitudes and behaviours. These regulations are expected of individuals in certain places and settings, and are therefore utilised to lead individual behaviour which determines what is considered appropriate or inappropriate. It could be argued that those who are accused of breaking the norms are seen as ‘abnormal’. Consequently, failure to maintain regulations can result in severe punishments. For example, being an outcast from society, lack of friends, as well as a lack of social development. It is also important to consider that the nature of behaviour and accuracy of social norms perceptions are both important when developing changing behaviours. However, it could be argued that norms influence individuals in different ways as everyone has different attitudes and levels of persuasion, what may be seen as influential and appealing to some groups of society, may not appeal to others. This assignment will discuss three types of social norms including; descriptive, subjective and injunctive. These norms will also be explored through the use of studies which will be illustrated with appropriate examples of empirical research and will be based on social psychological theory.

Sherrif (1936) described norms as “jointly negotiated rules for social behaviour, the customs, traditions, standards, rules, values and fashions which are standardised as a consequence of the contact of individuals”. Whereas, Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory found that individuals often tend to compare themselves to others with whom they share ‘similar characteristics’. Festinger, (1954) believed that individuals are most likely to follow those of similar features, including age, gender, personality attributes, and attitudes. Subsequently, a person’s social identity also plays a part in influencing decisions. Tajfel & Turner (1986) extend Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory and suggest that the outcome of intergroup comparisons is “essentially relative in nature and individuals assess a groups worth by comparing it to others”. However, these intergroup comparisons indirectly subsidise to self-esteem. Similarly, Cialdini et al. (1976) found that the supporters of those who watched the football games, would often be seen in college insignia and clothing than after defeats. This was due to their willingness to be identified as belonging to the group and being involved and having a sense of belonging within the group’s “fortunes” and intergroup meetings. However, Abrams & Hogg (1988) suggest that discrimination which may occur in intergroup may be due to increasing self-esteem as well as enhancing social identity. Alternatively, it is said that people conform because they are group members and evidence indicates that conformity is higher when participants see themselves as in-group members. This implies that the validation of physical reality or the avoidance of social disapproval is important. On the other hand, Deutsch & Gerard (1955) argued that “in order to explain group influence, it was necessary to distinguish between informational social influenced and normative social influence”.

When focussing on attitudes, it is important to consider that attitudes are beliefs, feelings and behavioural tendencies which “predict behaviour to the extent that the prediction of behaviour can be improved by taking into account other predictor variables as well as the processes involved in attitude formation and retrieval”. The theory of planned behaviour by Ajzen (1991) was assumed to improve prediction especially for behaviours over which a person does not have complete voluntary control, for example, complex behaviours that require extensive planning and the right conditions. It has been suggested that the reasons for the difficulty in predicting attitudes could have been determinant behaviour and behavioural intentions has to be combined with attitude violence.

In contrast, Drug use, a predominantly influential and theoretically damaging social influence is perceived as a descriptive norm. Descriptive norms are perceptions of individual behaviour. (Botvin,1995;Hansen et al,1988) argued that “social skills training can change student’s descriptive norms concerning the prevalence of drug use”. However, (Donaldson et al.,1995; Moberg & Piper;1995) have suggested there has been a major impact after the social skills training as students have reported more drug use. On the other hand, (Albert’s, Miller-Rassuro & Hecht, 1991) found that by reducing the frequency of drug use in school, this decreased the reports of drug use. They also argued that drug prevention programs “do not simultaneously teach resistance skills and lower the perceived prevalence of drug use” and this may “not only be ineffective but actually promotes drug use amongst adolescents”. To support this, Bakker (1995) argued that friend’s experiences influence others through their use of enthusiasm. Cialdini et al. (2006) highlighted negative descriptive norms and the removal of wood from national park increased, they highlighted injunctive norms and the removal of wood from national park decreased but obviously, highlighting descriptive norms is not always counterproductive.

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While considering social norms and changing behaviour, (Goldstein et al.,2008) conducted an experiment to investigate whether using an appeal that conveys the descriptive norm for participation would be desirable or undesirable when trying to encourage guests to change behaviour towards being conservative, enabling them to demonstrate behavioural change. This experiment was designed to emphasise the importance of environmental protection but no explicit norm was provided. 75% of the guests had an opportunity to participate in conservation programmes and were said to reuse their towels at least once during their stay. The theoretical purpose of this investigation was to examine how the guest’s conformity applies to a descriptive norm. Goldstein et al (2008) argued that if guests were motivated to reuse their towels, it was hypothesised that the message conveying the descriptive norm would result in greater towel reuse. This intervention was a desirable request and standardised manipulation was given. However, it could be argued that the impact of social norms may have been exaggerated in experimental settings which typically manage and prioritise norm salience.

Another intervention was undertaken by Neighbors et al (2004) which involved a scheme to lessen binge drinking among heavily drinking college students. This involved 252 students who completed measures of reasons for drinking, perceived norms and drinking behaviour. The students were also asked to give their perceptions of typical student drinking and actual student drinking. The results obtained indicated that normative feedback was effective in changing perceived norms and alcohol consumption at 3 and 6 month follow up assessments. However, in addition, the intervention was somewhat more effective at 3 month follow ups among participants who drank for more social reasons. Although behaviours may have changed slightly, the behaviour was thought to be undesirable as it was subjective. However, students tend to overestimate peer consumption of drugs and alcohol and highlighting the actual consumption rates can reduce consumption. The evidence that changing social norms can influence behaviour has been criticised by Mcalanay & McMahon (2007) who believed Neighbors et al (2004)’s study did not take into account factors such as the duration of the drinking sessions and therefore, cannot reliability predict blood alcohol level and intoxication.

While, subjective norms can be assessed directly through asking individuals to give their perceptions, injunctive norms involve voicing opinions. Measuring subjective norms requires individuals to identify referents whose opinions are important, to describe them and their behaviour which they are willing to comply with those norms. However, when analysing injunctive norms, it is essential to characterize the perceptions of what most individuals approve or disapprove. They specify what should be done and therefore are morals of the group. Cialdini, Kallgren & Reno (1991) argue that injunctive norms motivate behaviour by proposing social rewards or punishments for it. (Fishbein & Ajzen,1975;Ajzen & Fishbein,1980) analysed subjective norms and developed the theory of action as a response to assertions that the concept of attitudes was not particularly useful when predicting behaviour. It is essential to regard the perceptions of friends and families and their expectations regarding any given situation in which individuals may want to participate in. When predicting the likelihood of those who will donate blood, it is necessary to measure how strongly they believe in this necessity and to be compliant with the expectancies, attitudes and subjective norms which are later combined to form behaviour intentions which are used to predict behaviour. Similarly, Fishbein (1996) found that the likelihood of undergraduate men engaging in premarital sexual activity was more heavily determined by the expectations of their friends than by their attitudes towards the situation. More recently, Fishbein et al (1993) found that men in well organised gay communities perceived more pressure and had stronger intentions to avoid sexual activities than those in a less organised community.

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In conclusion, it is evident that social norms influence behaviour and this has been supported by the evidence given throughout this assignment. The nature of behaviour and accuracy of social norm perceptions are both important factors to consider when developing behaviours to change behaviour. It is also important to consider that changing norms in the same way for all behaviours and therefore levels of persuasion vary. It is evident that individual’s decisions are generally based on what friends and families say. When considering how this knowledge may be used to persuade others to change their behaviour, it could be argued that change is influenced by injunctive norms which are mediated by cognitive processing of the message and behaviour change is influence by descriptive norms



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