Social norms: At the intersection between psychology and behaviour

When trying to build a culture and school ethos of positive behaviour, we may often talk about social norms. This article explores what is meant by social norms, the effect they can have, and considerations for using them to encourage good behaviour.

Our behaviour is constantly shaped by that of those around us—and not exclusively in schools and classrooms. I recently arrived at a bus stop just as it was starting to rain; there was a small group of people waiting for the bus in a queue that went the opposite direction of the shelter. If I had been the only one waiting, I would simply stand beneath the covering, out of the rain. But instead, I joined the queue in the rain, behind a man using a newspaper in a futile attempt to keep his head dry. The mere presence of other people influenced my decision on where to stand.

(Author’s note: In my New Jersey dialect of American English, we’d say “get on line” instead of “join the queue,” but since moving to the UK, my adaption to British English is another example of the influence of others’ behaviour!)

No doubt many of us have been in situations where we think we would normally do X, “but everyone else is doing Y…”.

The effect of social pressure can be extremely powerful. You can watch this portrayal of a famous experiment of Solomon Asch in the 1950s:

Social psychology experiments are notoriously difficult to generalise (and sometimes even to replicate). Asch’s participants, for example, were all male undergraduate students at one small liberal arts college.

However, they do demonstrate the powerful effect of social norms. These can be defined as:


rules and standards that are understood by members of a group, and that guide and/or constrain social behaviour without the force of laws. These norms emerge out of interaction with others; they may or may not be stated explicitly, and any sanctions for deviating from them come from social networks. (Ciadldini & Trost, 1998)

In my bus stop example, the understood standard was the importance of the existing queue. It was not because there was posted sign or regulation instructing me on where to stand. If I had ignored the queue, I would not have been fined or barred from the bus, but instead may have faced social sanctions—perhaps a friend may have pretended not to know me, for example.

Closely tied to the concept of social norms is that of groupishness—a community with a sense of belonging (Didau & Rose, 2016). This can be a formal group (e.g., belonging to a school, neighbours on a street) or a superficial affinity or label (e.g., people who dye their hair blue, fans of a particular film franchise).

While humans have a tendency to identify with others, it is not automatic. We may live on a street, but not feel part of the community. A student can be enrolled in a school without necessarily feeling a sense of belonging to it.

For a group’s social norms to have a strong influence on us, we must have a strong sense of groupishness. Why would my neighbour keep their garden tidy if they didn’t share a value of a pleasant street? Why not stand under the bus shelter if I didn’t care what others thought of me?

The effects of groupishness and social norms can be fascinating, surprising, and even amusing, but they also have practical implications for schools and student behaviour.

As Tom Bennet says in an interview for EBE’s Behaviour and Culture Programme, “Children tend to emulate one another’s behaviour… They tend to look at the children that they wish to fit in with, the ones they admire, the ones they want to be friends with, and they tend to behave the same way that they are.”

Recall that groupishness is not automatic—an affinity with the so-called “cool kids” may be in tension with a sense of belonging to a student’s school or class.

However, the existence of social groups do not need to undermine a school’s behaviour norms. They can actually be a tool for teachers and school leaders to encourage positive behaviour. This can encourage individual students to voluntarily choose desired behaviours that create a supportive environment and allow learning to take place.

Some effective strategies, adopted from the EAST Framework (Service et al., 2015) include:

  • Describing positive behaviours most people do. People like fitting in with the group, even if it means queuing in the rain. By drawing attention to what most people do, you can encourage others to choose to do the same. (e.g., “Nearly everyone in our class is sitting quietly and waiting for instructions right now.”)
  • Using existing networks. Students influence the behaviour of others around them. It’s not too different from how marketing teams may leverage “influencers” on social media—motivating individuals towards positive behaviours may encourage others to do so too.. (e.g., to a student who sometimes instigates disruptions, “Thank you for not calling out in class yesterday; I hope I can count on you to do the same again today?”)
  • Encouraging commitments. When we make an explicit commitment to others in our group, we can be more likely to follow through. (e.g., “Thank you for promising me you’ll remember your assignment tomorrow; you could also promise your tablemates who are counting on you for the group task?”)

As this blog has previously explored, student behaviour does not exist in a vacuum; it is the result of many complex factors. Leveraging feelings of “groupishness” and social norms will not instantly create perfect behaviour. However, understanding, recognising, and influencing these factors can help build an ethos of positive behaviour in your classroom and school.

References & further reading

Bennett, T. (2020). Running the Room: The teacher’s guide to behaviour. John Catt Educational Limited.

Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance.

Didau, D., & Rose, N. (2016). What every teacher needs to know about psychology. John Catt Educational.

Fox, K. (2014). Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behaviour. Hodder & Stroughton.

Service, O., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., Algate, F., Gallagher, R., Nguyen, S., Ruda, S., Sanders, M., Pelenur, M., Gyani, A., Harper, H., Reinhard, J., & Kirkman, E. (2015). EAST: four simple ways to apply behavioural insights.

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