Social Norms Definition
Social norms are attributes of groups that generate expectations for the behavior of group members. Two types of norms differ in the source of the expectations. Descriptive norms refer to what most people in a group think, feel, or do; prescriptive or injunctive norms refer to what most people in a group approve of. The distinction here is between what is true of group members and what ought to be true of group members. In many cases, these two types of norms overlap. For example, wearing business suits is both a descriptive and a prescriptive norm for executives, just as wearing jeans is both a descriptive and a prescriptive norm for teenagers. Liberal political views are both a descriptive and a prescriptive norm on college campuses, just as traditional values are both a descriptive and a prescriptive norm in wealthy suburbs.
However, sometimes descriptive and prescriptive norms diverge. For example, healthy eating and exercising are prescriptive norms for most adult Americans, but less so descriptive norms. Conversely, driving to work (as opposed to taking public transportation) is a descriptive norm in many communities, but certainly not a prescriptive norm.
Analysis of Social Norms
Although both descriptive and prescriptive norms guide behavior, they do so through different psychological processes. Descriptive norms guide behavior because people take them to represent the most sensible course of action, a process known as informational social influence. Prescriptive norms guide behavior because people take them to represent the socially sanctioned course of action, a process known as normative social influence. The two types of norms also differ in how people experience the consequences of violating them.
Specifically violating a descriptive norm does not have quite the sting that violating a prescriptive norm has. For example, if knowing Latin is a descriptive norm at College X, a student who does not know Latin may feel relatively Latin-challenged; however, if knowing Latin is a prescriptive norm at College X, this student may very well feel ignorant and uneducated.
One final difference between descriptive and prescriptive norms concerns the scope of their influence on behavior. Descriptive norms influence behavior only within the particular situation and group for which the norm operates. Prescriptive norms have more far-reaching influence; they influence behavior across situations and populations.
Thus, a descriptive norm of not smoking at College X will lead students to avoid smoking on campus but not off; a prescriptive norm of not smoking at College X will lead students to avoid smoking all together.
- Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201-234.
- Miller, D. T., & Prentice, D. A. (1991). The construction of social norms and standards. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), .Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 799-829). New York: Guilford Press.