Why Harmful Norms Stick Around

And How to Get Rid of Them

In the 10th century A.D., Chinese Emperor Li Yu allegedly became entranced by a female concubine twirling on the petite tips of her toes. As word of the emperor’s affinity spread, more women began binding theirs and their daughters’ feet to conform, so by the mid-17th century, it had become a sign of lowly status for females not to have their feet permanently crippled into gangrenous four-inch hooves.

Originating from the emperor’s preference, Chinese foot binding was a social norm that stayed in place for almost a millennium, despite inflicting enormous individual pains with negligible collective benefits. In many ways, this isn’t unique. Humanity’s natural penchant for conformity may have made us Earth’s dominant species by sparing us having to learn everything through trial and error, but it’s also been implicated in many of history’s greatest tragedies, letting entire populations turn a blind eye to needless suffering.

As social animals, our behavior is guided not just by our own personal disposition and instincts but also by our expectations of how others would behave and judge behavior in similar situations. Social norms are those behaviors that are causally determined by group expectations, real or perceived, which arise in “mixed-motive games,” when there is a conflict between one’s self-interest and the communal well-being. This inherent tension helps explain why even the most harmful and unnecessary of social norms, like foot binding, can be so difficult and time-consuming to stamp out.

Difficult, but not impossible – Cristina Bicchieri, a University of Pennsylvania professor and author of “Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms.” Bicchieri has devoted her academic career to defining and measuring the impacts of social norms, so we can more easily abolish arbitrary ones.

One common stumbling block, according to Bicchieri, is trying to change a norm from the top-down, through legislation or other legal interventions alone. “Nothing is further from reality than that,” she says. This is why the War on Drugs failed and arguably where America’s Civil Rights Movement stalled, ending racism by the letter of the law but leaving the underlying norms in place. Nor is it enough to merely publicize the widespread harms of a social norm, which can reinforce the behavior by sending the message that it’s common and not judged too harshly.

“You have to give people motives on how to behave differently,” Bicchieri explains. “Just giving them information has never worked. In a country where corruption is systemic, you don’t want to say 99 percent of people pay bribes or accept bribes, or you normalize that behavior.”

Dislodging a harmful one isn’t as simple as convincing individual community members that the behavior doesn’t make sense. The community members must be convinced that enough other people whose judgment they value disagree with the norm to make abandoning said norm worth the anticipated social costs of defection.

This is because, as social animals, people base participation in norms on established group expectations rather than personal preference — humans tend to shy away from any behavior that might result in their being ostracized or morally judged.

Changing a social norm means intervening within someone’s “reference network,” our brains’ theoretical structures for determining whose opinions matter and how much in guiding our behavior from moment to moment, based on personal factors as well as situational context.

“When you drive on a street in San Francisco, your reference network is everyone else driving, walking or bicycling on the street in that moment,” explains Bicchieri.

No matter how abhorrent we may find a norm, if enough people in our relevant reference network engage in it and judge it acceptable, the power of comparison and social expectation will usually be enough to silence our concerns. In contrast, probably no amount of pushback from sources outside one’s reference network will be enough to dislodge an accepted social norm —hence the notorious futility of online echo chambers.

“The internet gives you an enormous ability of getting information, even if it is completely crazy, that confirms what you’ve decided to believe,” Bicchieri says. “So, the reference network will become all people who hold those beliefs and will villainize the people with different opinions.”

While the prominence of visible community leaders — like, say, an emperor — in more reference networks lets them exert disproportionate influence on establishing and enforcing social norms, they’re rarely well-positioned to get rid of them.

Dissolving a norm comes down to people on society’s periphery, so-called trendsetters, who tend to be less sensitive to social consequences and also have a higher degree of perceived self-efficacy. In other words, people who think they’re hot shit.

When enough trendsetters visibly abandon a social norm without suffering consequences, others in their reference network adjust their expectations of social stigma and gradually follow suit, leading to a tipping point of behavioral change throughout the community. The issue then, Bicchieri says, “is to create a culture of openness,” that encourages trendsetters and diminishes the backlash they receive.

While group deliberation may be effective in smaller communities, the best way to scale up those societal interventions is through media like film and TV shows, which dislodge norms faster by providing far-reaching trendsetting models, especially when supplemented with discussions that confirm others in our reference networks are changing expectations as well.

“We have enormous amounts of data now showing that, for example, soap operas [when] well done can really change people’s behavior permanently,” says Bicchieri. Successful examples of this include the telenovela “Simplemente Maria” which promoted literacy classes in Peru, and the radio soap “Tinka Tinka Sukh” which led Indian villages to abandon child marriage and dowry practices.

This is what a modern movement like #MeToo is striving for on an unprecedented and increasingly polarized global scale — both in abolishing the old gendered norms of sexual secrecy enforced by victim-shaming and installing new ones of sexual accountability enforced by harasser-shaming.

Whether or not that change sticks depends on how consistent punishment is for transgressing the new norms, what media models we have for positive behavioral change, and who more people count among their reference networks – Brett Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey-Ford, Donald Trump or Stormy Daniels?


How to Change a Social Norm in Three Steps

Psychology and philosophy professor Cristina Bicchieri helps us break down the crucial steps for dislodging a social norm:

  1. Diagnose the Behavior

First one must accurately distinguish a social norm, as opposed to a custom when a habitual behavior is determined by personal preference, or a descriptive norm when there’s no conflict between the expected social behavior and our self-interest – like driving on the right side of the road. “It’s not just the presence of expectations,” Bicchieri says, that distinguishes a social norm, “but the fact that these expectations have a causal effect on behavior.”

  1. Local Interventions

The next step Bicchieri prescribes is conducting trials of different types of interventions on the local level. Community deliberation can be a great way to start changing the expectations of social reward or punishment that enforce a norm within the relevant reference network, encouraging trendsetters.

  1. Integrated Interventions

Communal discussion alone will fail in the face of national or globalized reference networks, so Bicchieri recommends integrating with legal and media interventions. Though punitive laws only work to change behavior when supported by social norms, they can be used to create economic incentives or give trendsetters a platform for denouncing harmful norms, while the media offers salient models for the other rewards of more socially positive behavior.

Jeffrey Rindskopf

Jeffrey Rindskopf is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, born and raised in southern California. He attended film school at Chapman University before beginning his career as a freelancer in 2014, writing fiction and articles covering travel, food, and culture. When he isn't writing, Jeffrey likes to travel or simply melt into the couch while consuming some of his favorite media.
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