Breaking Down Social Norms

Updated October 6, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Every culture has different ways of thinking and behaving that are considered more or less acceptable. When someone strays from these social norms, they may be met with consequences— whether real or imagined. Realize it or not, most of our behaviors are guided by a sense of right and wrong, weird or normal, acceptable or unacceptable. In some cases, these social norms are a good thing. However, they can also be detrimental to the individuals in a society. We’ll be breaking down different kinds of social norms and exploring the ways in which they can hurt and help people. If you are hurt by social norms, online therapy services are available for you. 

Feeling Excluded From Social Norms?

What Are Social Norms?

A social norm is an unwritten, informal rule meant to guide behavior among the of society. It distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, and so on. Although people can choose to go against social norms, pressure from others often keeps them from doing so. Humans like to be accepted and belong, so they tend to stray away from anything that will separate them from other people. The social psychology of humans describes how our social identification drives us to seek community. We are more likely to follow normative expectations and normative conduct to maintain this feeling of group. 

Explicit vs. Perceived Social Norms

Social norms can be explicit or perceived. Perceived social norms are those behaviors that we believe others will approve or disapprove of. Explicit norms are those that we know are unacceptable, perhaps because they’re forbidden by law or talked about often. It’s possible to misperceive certain social norms, especially if it’s a topic people don’t address very much. 

In social psychology, there is also a difference between descriptive norms and injunctive norms. A descriptive norm is what the majority of group actually do, think, and believe. On the other hand, an injunctive norm is what most group approve of. So while descriptive norms is what objectively happens, injunctive ones tend to be more subjective norms. They are what we perceive to be true- perhaps how we feel we should act or how people are judging us regardless of reality. 

How Do Social Norms Affect Our Daily Lives?

Social norms are often based on societal rules that guide and affect behavior one way or another. These normative expectations are at play every second of every day no matter where we are or who we’re around. We may make choices that we don’t necessarily agree with or do things we don’t really want to do because it’s acceptable to the rest of society. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the situation. Social norms can affect how we dress, what we eat, how we speak, and even how we think and believe. They’re present in the big and small moments and decisions, no matter the subject. 

Following behavior norms is ultimately up to each individual, but there will still be pressure to make certain choices. Breaking social norms of behavior can be scary, especially when rejection or embarrassment is a possibility. Humans usually try to stay within society’s expectations of them out of a fear of being ostracized if they don’t. Sometimes, people will rebel or go against the grain. They may do so to start a trend, to prove a point, or because they’re embracing their individuality. Though it can be risky, many people find some kind of freedom from making their own decisions. 

Social norms aren’t the same everywhere you go. For example, it can be more difficult to understand social norms of behavior in new cultures, countries, or settings. Social constructs are a fascinating topic within social psychology because of how different they can be. Every society has different normative beliefs and values that they hold dear. Some cultures are more guided by religion, while others are more secular. Some place emphasis on the family and values, while others are more individualistic in nature. Some prioritize modesty while others are unconcerned with how people choose to dress. No matter where you find yourself in the world, there will be some type of social norms at play; however, these social constructs can vary greatly depending on where you are and who you’re around. 

Types of Social Norms

Social norms can be broken down into four distinct categories. Each of these specific norms can help guide a person’s behavior toward acceptable actions. The four groups are as follows: 

Folkways: These are everyday social norms that guide how you interact with other people. They are often learned behaviors. While you probably won’t end up in jail if you break a folkway social norm, you might not be accepted by certain social groups if you don’t follow them. 

Example:Not saying “thank you” when someone does something nice or refusing a handshake when first meeting another person would be a violation of folkways in many cultures. It is a normative belief that these are expressions of courtesy and respect.

Mores: Mores distinguish behaviors as right or wrong based on a sense of morality. A more can be illegal, but more often than not, it’s something that’s simply offensive if you break it. While mores may seem like subjective norms, the majority of group in a community tend to have a similar idea of what is acceptable.

Example:Showing up to a temple or church, especially in a modest culture, would be considered breaking a more. Wearing bright colors to a funeral, where most people are in black, would probably make people upset as well. 

Taboos: Violating a taboo often results in ostracism from of society because it is such an unbelievable behavior. They may result from social customs or even religious practices. 

Example:Having an affair is looked down on by most people in American culture. In Muslim countries, drinking alcohol can be considered taboo by practicing. 

Laws: These are social norms that are legislated at a state or federal level. If you break them, you can be prosecuted in the criminal justice system. Laws are proscriptive norms- there is a negative consequence for performing the action.

Example:Murder, abuse, and assault are all punishable by law in most societies. The harshness of the punishment is what can differ depending on the crime and where you live. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, reach out right away to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance. 

No matter what kind of social norm is at play, it can still influence how someone chooses to behave. Many social norms serve a purpose and help keep people safe, while others can be harmful. Individuals must decide for themselves which rules are practical and which they are okay with breaking. 

Social Norming

Social norms can be highly influential on behavior, which is why some organizations turn to social norming to promote positive changes in attitudes and actions. Social norming refers to tactics, campaigns, or techniques meant to prevent harmful behaviors or encourage positive ones. Examples include:

  • Campaigns to reduce drinking and driving among high-school students

  • Advertisements encouraging college students to use available mental health resources

  • Using positive peer pressure to convince people to give up smoking cigarettes 

  • Running a recycling campaign in your neighborhood where it’s easy to see who is and is not participating 

Social norming often works because people don’t want to feel left out. Even though they may not admit to it, the pressure to fit in outweighs their resistance to conformity. This is especially true among adolescents and college-aged students who place a high value on social acceptance. 

For example, research on social norms among college students shows that many of them overestimate how much their peers are consuming alcohol. When they get the facts through a social norming campaign and realize their peers aren’t drinking as much as they thought, they’re more likely to choose healthier habits. So, while social norming can be used maliciously, it can also create a lot of positive change.

This previous example describes pluralistic ignorance. This occurs when people have a misconception of what the majority is experiencing in a group. It can be harmful because when a normative belief doesn’t line up with the actual population’s values. it can lead to discriminatory norms, bad business strategies, and unsupported laws being passed.

Social Norms Theory: Definition

The Social Norms Theory argues that our behavior is largely a result of misperceptions of our peers rather than based on reality. We might assume certain thoughts or behaviors would cause us to stand out or not fit in when that wouldn’t be the case. Essentially, this theory says that we often incorrectly perceive which actions are acceptable. We make assumptions without ever challenging them and are guided by these misperceptions in our daily lives. Moving past these misperceptions is important for our mental health and individuality, so it’s important to recognize when we’re making assumptions and deconstruct why these social norms exist to begin with. 

Social Norms and Mental Health 

Whenever someone strays from social norms or other expectations, rejection is always a possibility. Though we hope for acceptance, that’s not always the outcome. When someone doesn’t fit into a social norm, their mental health can be negatively impacted. They might experience these effects:

  • Isolation:When people choose to go against the grain, they may be physically or emotionally isolated from other people. Even if they do what it takes to fit in, they may feel a disconnect in the group since they’ve gone against their conscience and strayed from their social identity. 

  • Loneliness:When someone perceives rejection or loneliness if they don’t conform, they’re more likely to bend to the rules of the group or society. Though people may enjoy being alone, no one likes the feeling of loneliness, especially since humans are such social creatures. We crave a social identity and this requires following social norms. Social conformity against loneliness by giving people a sense of belonging. However, once people realize that their acceptance is only based on conformity, they may change their minds, ignore a group norm, and get pushed back out of the group. The loneliness they once feared could then be a reality. 

  • Anxiety:Pressure to conform or face rejection can make a person feel anxious about what choice to make. Social anxiety can influence conformity in many situations, especially among younger populations. Even though people usually know right from wrong, they can still experience peer pressure to go against their gut reaction. When this happens, they may develop anxiety as a result of going against their conscience to follow certain norms. If they choose to go their own way, they may still feel anxiety about being ostracized from the group. 

  • Depression:Staying true to oneself can be difficult, especially when faced with pressure from one’s peers to obey specific norms. Depression can develop when a person chooses to conform rather than be themselves. Meeting societal expectations may be more important than forging one’s own path, but the result of that conformity can be feelings like regret, resentment, and sadness. 

Whether people choose to conform to social norms or not, they’re likely to face consequences no matter what choice they make. There are trade-offs for every decision, meaning that the desire to fit in may outweigh one’s wish to retain their individuality or vice versa. People must decide where their priorities lie and make choices that are healthiest for them.  

Who is Most Impacted by Social Norms? 

Social norms most often impact those who are different, disadvantaged, or marginalized in some way. For example: 

  • People who are different may not fit into groups as easily. They might have a personality or interests that differ from most people, making it harder to find their people. 

  • People who are disadvantaged may not have the resources to fit in how they’d like to. When they’re excluded from society or groups, it’s usually a result of inequalities that are out of their control. Even if they want to follow a social norm, it might not be an option for them.  

  • People who are marginalized may not be able to fit in because they have fewer opportunities, resources, or rights than others. Their identity may cause them to stand out or even be rejected because they don’t match society’s standards.

Whether it’s a disability, socioeconomic situation, or someone’s sexual orientation, many different factors can affect how social norms shape a person’s life. Certain norms may give others privileges that are not available to everyone. For example, being on social welfare may exclude someone from applying for loans or renting a house. Many times, people don’t have control over these factors, which can make it harder to cope when they’re excluded or rejected for failing to adhere to certain norms and society’s expectations. 

Disadvantages of Social Norms

Though social norms can have positive effects, they can also come with disadvantages and be problematic. Here are just a few of the ways they can create issues:

  • Social norms create mental health issues:When people are rejected for not adhering to social norms, they may experience anxiety, loneliness, or depression. 

  • Social norms can be wrong:There are many examples of societal social norms that people thought were correct but were immoral all along. Following social norms without challenging them can be harmful to groups and individuals alike. 

  • Social norms can create stigmas:Racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and other forms of discrimination can be perpetuated by existing social norms. People must go against the grain to fight these stigmas. 

  • Social norms inhibit diversity:When people feel like they can’t associate with people who believe or act differently than them, it can create a lack of diversity in groups and organizations.  

  • Social norms kill potential:Caring what others think can prevent people from taking risks and growing, whether it be in their personal or professional lives. 

  • Social norms stifle creativity:People may be afraid to ideas or concepts that are different, which can breed conformity rather than creativity. 

  • Social norms repress individuality:When people feel like they can’t be themselves or think outside the box, they may hide that side of themselves instead of it with the world. 

Social norms can bring effective social control to the of society, especially to deviant . At the same time, they can have harmful effects when people do what others want rather than choosing what is right for them. It’s always important to consider why certain social norms exist and if following them will be beneficial or cause more harm— whether to yourself or other people. 

Minority Groups and Social Norms

Minority groups are often at a disadvantage when they try to abide by social norms. Since something about their identity sets them apart (such as sexual orientation, age, race, ethnicity, language, etc.), and since these factors cannot be chosen or changed, they may experience greater distress when they don’t fit in. Below are some practical examples of how minorities may be negatively impacted by common social norms:

  • In a society that places an emphasis on working out and eating healthily… those living in poverty may not have the resources to afford a gym, stylish workout clothes, or healthy fruits and veggies for meals. 

  • In a society with set gender norms… those belonging to the LGBTQ+ community may feel excluded, experience harassment, or be rejected from an opportunity because of their sexuality.

  • In a society that values modernism… Older populations may feel that their voice doesn’t matter. 

  • In a society that focuses on individualism… Those who have always relied on others for resources might feel ashamed to ask for help or lean on other people. 

Social norms can put minorities at an even further disadvantage than they were already at, making it harder for them to break glass ceilings, pull themselves out of poverty, or obtain the resources they need. This can exacerbate generational cycles that have held minorities down and prevent progress from occurring. 

Minorities, Social Norms, and Mental Health

Minorities can be faced with many different obstacles as they navigate and try to overcome social norms. During the course of their efforts, their mental health often takes a toll. As you may recall, one of the negative effects of social norms is the effect they have on mental health. For those belonging to minority groups, this effect can be even stronger. When society expects certain behaviors from its, those who belong to minority groups may not always have the same resources as others to meet these expectations. 

For example, consider the mental health care field. Although there is a trend toward destigmatizing mental health topics, many minority groups find that they cannot reach out for help when they need it because of the stigma that still exists. So, they may end up struggling in silence. While more advantaged groups often have the resources to get therapy or medication so they can get better, minorities can be left to fend for themselves. 

Social norms can also be perpetuated through biased or non-inclusive language which then places minorities on a lower footing than their more privileged peers. For example, certain language can reinforce negative stereotypes and halt progress toward a more inclusive society. Internalized norms about how people of different genders, ages, or ethnicities should behave can stunt individuality and reduce diversity. 

To overcome these disparities, it’s important that society focuses on inclusive practices in all areas. This includes school, work, and home life. It also extends to the mental health care system. All people, regardless of their background, should feel free to be themselves and reach out for help when they’re in need. Through specific legislation, social movements, and campaigns, creating a more welcoming culture is possible. Such a culture is also concerned with how we speak to one another and how accepting we are of differences. The more tolerant we are of people who think or act differently, the safer the world can be for minorities and everyone else in general.

Navigating Social Norms

Feeling left out? Rejected? Excluded? Social norms can make us feel all types of emotions, some of which are negative and difficult to overcome. If you’re feeling the weight of the world, know that you can take steps to feel better. For example:

  • Find your tribe:Open, honest relationships with other people can be both healing and encouraging. These are the people you can be completely yourself around and who will have your back no matter what. Finding one, two, or three people that you feel comfortable around is essential for your mental health. When the world tells you that you can’t be yourself, these are the humans that will tell you to embrace every part of who you are. You may even create this as your own social norm within your own tribe. You need these kinds of people in your life, so look for them and hold onto them once you do find them. 

  • Find a hobby you love:Part of being yourself is doing the things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. Hobbies can include anything from designing graphics to training for a marathon. By finding those activities that genuinely bring you relaxation and joy, you can stay true to yourself and lean into your own interests instead of following other people. 

  • Express yourself:Staying mentally healthy includes having an outlet for expressing yourself. This might mean talking to friends and family, journaling, or writing music. It also means your thoughts and feelings when someone asks what’s on your mind. Expressing yourself clearly and honestly will help you stay true to yourself. 

In a world that often leans toward conformity, it can be a bold step to choose yourself. However, it is something that can be very rewarding. As you work toward staying authentic and being yourself, it’s vital to take care of your mental and physical well-being. Doing so can help promote healthy habits, reduce your stress, and prepare you to cope with life’s challenges in a healthier manner. 

Feeling Excluded From Social Norms?

BetterHelp is Here to Support You

Living as your most authentic self isn’t always easy. Sometimes it takes more practice and patience than you intended. Maybe there is a social norm holding you back from living up to your potential. If you feel that social norms are negatively impacting your life or just need someone to talk to about life, BetterHelp could be a great option. BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that connects qualified therapists with those in need of mental health care. Once you sign up online, you’ll use your phone, computer, or tablet to get connected with your therapist. You can talk over the phone, through a video conference, or by using a messaging feature. The chatroom is always open to you; your therapist will respond as soon as they are able. 

Whether you’ve tried therapy in the past or have never considered it before, BetterHelp could be the right fit for your needs. Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for mental health concerns, it is always possible to find something that works for you.

Looking after your mental health is important at every stage of life. It affects how we think, behave, and feel. Whether you’ve been feeling down for a while or just need a shoulder to lean on, pursuing therapy could help in multiple areas of your life. Don’t hesitate to reach out when you feel ready to take that next step with BetterHelp.

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