Human behaviour has been, for a long time, vividly influenced by an individual’s milieu, of which “social norms” or “social standards” comprise an unequivocally indispensable segment. Social norms are commonly defined as “certain standards or guidelines to which human behaviour must conform without the use of legal force.” Such norms involve:
- Folkways: These are the basic everyday norms, which are just guidelines as to how to act and interact. “Always greet someone with a smile,” “Use words like please, sorry, and thank you,” “Do not interfere while two people are talking unless very urgent or in case of any emergency,” and so on.
- More: These involve behaviours driven by a sense of morality. For example, “respect the elderly,” “avoid chit-chatting in a church,” etc.
- Laws: These are legally stated by a legislative authority and implemented following specific procedures. For example, “refrain from indulging in any public harassment, murder, or exploitation of a person” is legally guaranteed in almost every society.
- Taboos: These are outcomes of social or religious practices, the violation of which may lead to social exclusion. For example, “polygamy” may result in the ostracism of a person in the Hindu community, unlike in Muslim countries.
These norms vary from country to country, group to group, and one social class to another. Society demands balance, and to create and maintain that balance, it inevitably becomes imperative to have a set of rules, guidelines, and patterns that govern the ethical and moral attitudes of people. Any interference in the same could have a variety of negative consequences, including the destruction of that social symmetry.
In a country as beautiful as India, extensively rich in culture and diversity, there has always been a need for a “glue” that socially binds all the differences and blends them into “one” to promote social cohesion. Thus, the moral values, teachings, and dictums contributing to the development of personality are what this land is known across the entire globe for. Our adherence to family values and social norms has always brought us, as natives of this country, together and closer.
However, there are two misconceptions that one has regarding social norms. Firstly, people often believe that everything they do and every reaction they show is driven by the broad contours framed by social norms. However, there are a few factors responsible for an individual’s behaviour that are independent of social norms. Sometimes, people may also tend to produce certain reactions opposite to what social norms suggest, owing to their lack of adequate knowledge or immense attachment to or emotions surrounding the same.
Secondly, not all norms result in correct behaviour by a person; some do have gloomy repercussions. Let’s go through the following information to do some further digging:
Different types of norms exist:
- Descriptive norms tend to incline people towards what others do. People believe that what everyone else is doing must be the right thing to do. For instance, in a society where all the females deprive themselves of education after passing high school, a girl being brought up in that culture may grow up believing that it is correct for her, as well, to refrain from any further studies in university.
- Injunctive norms require people to do what they think would be accepted by society. Such expectations of society may contradict a person’s own beliefs or what is morally correct. For instance, a lady who is about to give birth to an infant daughter may decide to abort her if she is a part of a society where everyone approves of sons and disparages the birth of daughters.
- Moral norms, on the other hand, allow people to act in a way that they feel is morally right. Unlike descriptive or injunctive norms, what society expects them to do or what the people themselves do becomes irrelevant. For example, a person may decide to marry at an age when he has advanced in his career, despite the expectation that he marry at the age of 18.
We contemplate from the above that descriptive and injunctive norms can create a feeling of forced behaviour by others, leading to mental distress. On the other hand, moral norms allow for relaxation. They permit people to behave independently of what society wants them to do. People find a direction to follow their own hearts and be protected from the burden of social standards, which can lead to the deterioration of people’s lives, as elucidated from the examples aforementioned in the case of descriptive and injunctive norms.
Why does one want to meet social expectations?
Well, there can be a plethora of answers as to what makes people wish to conform to such standards. Broadly,
- The core idea behind this revolves around the factor of “self image.” Society tends to eulogise “the venerable” and condemn “the antagonist.” What society perceives of us necessitates that we give morally sound impressions.
- It is rightly said that “a man is a social animal.” People always have and will continue to look for the fulfilment of their “affiliation” or “belongingness” needs. They tend to follow the crowd so as to be accepted by society. This was clearly propounded by Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments, conducted in the 1950s, which disclosed the extent of the influence of a group on an individual. It revealed how people are willing to defy reality and blend in with others from the same group (descriptive norms). This is what we call “pluralistic ignorance.” The fear of being outcast by society is one of the prominent reasons for this.
- It is also generally believed that the number of steps traversed on a road determines the extent of trust in the path. This means that if a large number of people do something, it must be the right thing to do. For example, people would opt for a brand with a large market share instead of reposing their faith in a budding business. This is also referred to as the “cascade effect.”
- We generally have a human tendency to believe and follow what has been practised by people for ages. A new-born baby, who cannot speak but can observe, details every minute detail of all the happenings in his surroundings. His attitude and behaviour tend to reflect a significant contribution made by his parents’ behaviour and stance. He grows up following the same culture and beliefs, which require him to stand by the expectations. People do not wish to welcome anything new. Old philosophies and simplified social norms, which form the contours of moral standards, continue to exist and be upheld as “sacrosanct.”
- It is also opined that our conjectures are shaped by social norms, which are important to understand a wide array of social behaviors. They pose the morally correct guidelines for human behaviour and reactions in every type of situation. Thus, it is the parents, family, teachers, and everyone else who seek to add values to a child’s development by exposing him to various social norms that have been simplified so that they can be easily adopted.
Analyses of the validity of social standards.
Thus, it is commonly believed that what society wants us to do and what we feel in our hearts are truly the best actions. However, it is important to contemplate the aforementioned line carefully and dig a little deeper into it. The line consists of two basic conditions for any action to be a perfect cue:
- What society requires of us, and
- What we feel in our souls
The first condition, prima facie, seems to be a prerequisite, but the second one forms the conclusive evidence for any action to be true and genuine. In light of the second condition, it becomes necessary to implore people to begin questioning things before doing them. If the answers are satisfactory, it should be done wholeheartedly; otherwise, it should be avoided. There is a reason for it. When one lives in a self-created environment where his own life is sabotaged by some unjust societal standards, resulting in a restrictive and confining impact, life most likely begins with no meaning, confidence, or bliss. This brings us back to questioning the validity of the very first condition.
Of all the arguments, we uphold the view that occasionally it is okay not to be bound by societal standards, which can have multiple reasons as to why. Sometimes there is a disparity between what a group of people collectively believe to be ethically correct and decide to act in that manner and what is actually correct. In such cases where people identify that adherence to such norms could be a hindrance to their development and growth, there becomes a need for a “mental revolution.” Either the entire group is asked to adopt liberal standards, which allow everyone to choose what they want, or different people go ahead with their own beliefs about what is right and what is not.
However, it should be noted that such changes do not happen overnight; they require consistent efforts and steps taken by some of society’s most powerful individuals to kickstart the process. Such individuals are not trusted by society in the early stages, but eventually they are believed to be right and followed. But not everyone is able to begin the era of reform. Various studies have shown that 90% of people desire to lead a peaceful, uncomplicated life, and “acceptance by society” eases this out. Only ten percent of this population musters the courage to deviate from society and take the uncharted path simply because they believe it is morally correct or a healthy alternative for their own betterment.
Sometimes, the government takes actions to change the mindsets of people by banning certain immoral exercises or acts opposed to public policy that were being performed by groups in the name of social norms or morally correct practices. Such intervention by a legal authority or the country’s government becomes critical to ensuring that the society follows a healthy and progressive path that leads to a reformed culture.
How to avoid social norms-created falsity?
- Begin to challenge and question every existing idea that your mind does not allow you to believe. Inquire about everyone’s thoughts on the subject. This would allow all the people who think differently to speak up, and you would get them in your favour, which would boost your confidence in your own thoughts.
- Start practising to be different from society in small strands. One needs to be able to withstand nonconformity from society and trust in himself. For instance, “studying overnight when everyone else is sleeping,” “refraining from social inclusion while working,” or “choosing to eat healthy when everyone present around you is eating junk”
- One needs to develop courage to overcome the fear of being ostracised by society for following the morally correct path. This can be accomplished by going against the grain. However, it is to be realised that such intervention must not go in vain; that is, any step taken must be for the right thing and not for any action that involves a rather malafide intention because society seems to punish the wrongdoers in various inexplicable and unavoidable ways.
Thus, we must understand that social norms are meant to provide a road map for healthy social cohesion, not to overburden people by robbing them of their mental freedom in decision-making. The ability to express oneself is the only key to a person’s healthy mind and personal autonomy. In a world full of people driven by conformity, it takes guts to stand tall and choose oneself. Making oneself a priority, on the other hand, eventually leads to a happy lifestyle and a person’s well-being!