Rule Makers, Rule Breakers
1 A Cure for Chaos
Imagine a world where people are always late. Trains, buses, and airplanes don’t abide by any fixed schedule. In conversations, people interrupt each other frequently, get handsy with new acquaintances, and never make eye contact. People wake up whenever they want and leave their houses with or without putting on clothes. At restaurants—which are open whenever—people demand food that isn’t on the menu, chew with their mouths open, belch frequently, and, without asking, eat off of strangers’ plates. Board a crowded elevator, and you’ll find people singing, shaking their wet umbrellas on each other, and facing the wrong direction. In schools, students talk on their phones throughout lectures, pull pranks on the teachers, and cheat openly on exams. On city streets, no one pays attention to stoplights, and people drive on both sides of the road. Pedestrians litter heedlessly, steal strangers’ bicycles off racks, and curse loudly. Sex isn’t reserved for private settings like bedrooms; it happens on public transportation, on park benches, and in movie theaters.
This is a world without social norms—a world where people don’t have any socially agreed-upon standards of behavior.
Luckily, humans—much more than any other species—have an
uncanny ability to develop, maintain, and enforce social norms to avoid the above scenarios. In fact, we’re a super-normative species: Without even realizing it, we spend a huge amount of our lives following social rules and conventions—even if the rules don’t make any sense.
Consider a few examples: In New York City on the last day of every year,
millions of people stand in the freezing cold and cheer wildly at a ball dropping from a pole. There are the equally bizarre New Year’s practices of
eating twelve grapes at midnight with great passion in Spain,
eating a spoonful of lentils for good luck in Chile, and
filling barbed wire with flammable material and swinging it around one’s head in Scotland. And every year, thousands of people excitedly crowd into stadiums to cheer, holler, and even scream as they watch other people tackle each other, play music, or tell jokes.
These routines are mostly carried out in large groups, but many of our behaviors that are less crowd-encouraged are just as odd. Why do women wear a colorless white dress on one of the happiest days of their lives? Why do people cut down perfectly good trees in December, decorate them, and then let them die in their living rooms? In the United States, why do we forbid our children from talking to strangers but, on October 31, encourage them to put on costumes and roam the streets begging adults for candy? Around the world we observe equally puzzling behaviors. For example, why on certain days in India do millions of people joyfully gather to wade in a
frigid, polluted river in celebration of Kumbh Mela?
From the outside, our social norms often seem bizarre, but from the inside, we take them for granted. Some social norms are codified into regulations and laws (obey stop signs; don’t steal someone’s bicycle); others are unspoken (don’t stare at people on the train; cover your mouth when you sneeze). They can manifest in daily, mundane behaviors, such as putting clothes on or saying hello when you answer the phone
and goodbye when you hang up. Or they can take the form of the ritualistic, learned behaviors we perform at out-of-the-ordinary, special occasions, such as the Kumbh Mela or Halloween.
Social norms are all around us—we follow them constantly. For our species, conforming to social norms is as natural as swimming upstream is for a salmon. Yet, ironically, while social norms are omnipresent, they’re largely invisible. Many of us rarely notice how much of our behavior is driven by them—or, more important, how much they’re needed.
This is a great human puzzle. How have we spent our entire lives under the influence of such powerful forces and not understood or even noticed their impact?
BORN TO RUN . . . OR FOLLOW
At what age would you guess children start picking up on social norms? At age three, when many enter preschool, or at age five, when they go to kindergarten? It turns out that our normative instincts manifest much earlier: Studies show that babies follow norms and are willing to punish norm violators even before they have formal language.
In a groundbreaking study, researchers demonstrated that infants will indicate a clear preference for animal hand puppets that engage in socially normative behavior (those that help other puppets open a box with a rattle inside and those that return a toy ball that another puppet has dropped) relative to puppets that engage in antisocial behavior (those that prevent other puppets from opening a box and who take toy balls away from them).
In fact, by the time we’re three years old, we’re actively berating norm violators.
In one study, two-year-olds and three-year-olds
drew pictures or made clay sculptures next to two puppets who also made their own crafts. When one of the puppets left, the other puppet began to destroy the picture or the sculpture that the puppet had made. Two-year-olds seemed almost entirely unperturbed at seeing this, but approximately one-quarter of the three-year-olds spoke up, saying to the rude puppet things like “No, you’re not supposed to do that!” Young children will declare their disapproval in situations that are not ethically charged as well.
After being taught a certain arbitrary behavior and then witnessing a puppet incorrectly imitating it, three-year-olds vigorously protested. Quite clearly, children learn not only to interpret social norms from their environment, but also to actively shape and enforce them.
Humans have evolved to have a very sophisticated normative psychology that develops as soon as we leave the womb. In fact, it makes us unique among species. To their credit, many species do engage in highly sophisticated social learning.
The nine-spined stickleback fish, for instance, will prioritize feeding spots where other fish are feeding over relatively empty locations.
Norway rats will eat food that they see a demonstrator rat eating. And
birds are also keenly attuned to their flock’s didactic songs when making foraging decisions. But there’s no evidence so far that animals copy others for social reasons such as simply fitting in and belonging.
Researchers in Germany conducted a very creative experiment that illustrated just this point. They designed a puzzle box with three compartments, each with a small hole at the top. At the experiment’s beginning, subjects—both young children and chimpanzees—learned that dropping balls into one of the box’s compartments would get rewarded with a tasty snack. Next, they were shown another child or chimpanzee interacting with the box, and they saw that he could get food after dropping pellets into a completely different compartment. When the subjects took their turn at the puzzle
box, an experimenter took note of where they dropped the balls. Children often changed compartments to match the behavior of other children, especially when those children were watching them. This suggests that children don’t just change strategies because they think their peer’s strategy is better; they also do it for social reasons—as a sign of affiliation and conformity. By comparison, few chimps switched strategies to match the behavior of their fellow chimps. Chimpanzees, like many nonhuman animals, might have the ability to learn from each other, but they don’t generally apply that social learning absent a material benefit. Only humans appear to follow social norms to be part of the group.
THE POWER OF SOCIAL NORMS
Imagine you’ve signed up to participate in a psychological study. After arriving at a laboratory, you’re asked to sit in a room with about eight other participants. The researcher comes in and gives each person a piece of paper showing one line on the left side of the page and multiple lines of differing lengths on the right side of the page labeled Line A, Line B, and Line C, as seen in Figure 1.1
. He asks you all to determine independently which line on the right side of the page is the same length as the line on the left. It’s completely obvious to you that Line A is the correct answer. He then calls on participants one by one to give their responses. The other participants all answer Line B; no one says Line A. You’re the second-to-last person to state your answer. Will you stick with A or switch to B?
If you’d taken part in this experiment, it’s likely you would have questioned your judgment and agreed with the group at some point. That’s what social psychologist Solomon Asch found when he ran this
now classic study in 1956. In Asch’s study, each participant, unbeknownst to them, was in a group made up of pretend research subjects, who were told to give a clearly incorrect answer on a number of trials. Asch’s results showed that out of the 123 participants across groups, three-quarters sided with the group on at least one occasion. That is, the majority changed their answers to match the wrong but popular choice.
Figure 1.1. Solomon Asch’s line-judgment task.
The results of this quirky little experiment speak to a broader truth. Without even realizing it, we’re all prone to following group norms that can override our sense of right and wrong.
Outside of the laboratory, we follow many norms that arguably seem irrelevant. Take, for example, the handshake, arguably the most common mode of greeting people in the world. Scholars speculate that the
handshake may have originated in ancient Greece in the ninth century BC as a gesture designed to show a new acquaintance that you weren’t concealing any weapons. Today, few of us walk around with axes or swords hidden under our sleeves, but the handshake continues to serve as a physical accompaniment to how we greet others. Its original purpose disappeared, but the handshake remained.
Figure 1.2. Handshake between King Shalmaneser III of Assyria and a Babylonian ruler found on a ninth-century BC relief.
Perhaps even more puzzling is that we sometimes follow social norms that are downright dangerous. Take the festival of Thaipusam, a Hindu celebration engaged in by Tamil communities around the world. As part of Thaipusam, participants take part in the “Kavadi Attam,” which means “Burden Dance” in English, and for good reason.
A testament of commitment to Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war, the Kavadi requires people to choose their “burden,” or method of self-inflicted pain.
It’s fairly common, for example, to pierce one’s skin, tongue, cheeks, or all three with “vel” skewers—holy spears or hooks. Others elect to wear a portable shrine, which is decorated and attached to the body with up to 108 vels piercing the skin.
On the island
of Mauritius, which serves as a major site for the Thaipusam festival, participants must climb a mountain to reach the Temple of Murugan. The trip is over four hours, during which participants must carry their burden while walking barefoot on uneven surfaces. To make things more difficult, some choose to conduct the entire walk while
strapped to planks of nails.
Although few rituals can stack up to the torturous Kavadi Attam, many others are similarly arduous. For example,
in San Pedro Manrique, Spain, June 23 marks the beginning of a summer solstice ritual.
Each year, around three thousand spectators pack into the tiny village of six hundred residents to watch volunteers walk across twenty-three feet of burning coals as part of a long-standing local tradition.
Some people walk in fulfillment of a community vow, while others simply get caught up in the excitement.
Volunteers often carry relatives on their backs as they cross the white-hot walkway, which can reach temperatures as high as twelve hundred degrees Fahrenheit. After the ritual is over, people rejoice and celebrate for the rest of the night.
The question is, why do they do it?
THE TIES THAT BIND
Whether it’s something simple like the handshake or a complex ritual like the Kumbh Mela, social norms are far from random. Rather, they evolve for a highly functional reason: They’ve shaped us into one of the most cooperative species on the planet. Countless studies have shown that social norms are critical for uniting communities into cooperative, well-coordinated groups that can accomplish great feats.
Social norms are, in effect, the ties that bind us together, and scientists have collected evidence to prove it. For example,
a team of anthropologists
had a rare opportunity to study the actual physiology of the fire-walking ritual’s attendees in San Pedro Manrique. They strapped transmitter belts to fire-walkers and attendees to measure their heart rates during the ritual. The results showed a remarkable synchronization in the heart rates of ritual participants, as well as their friends and family in the audience. Specifically, when participants’ hearts began to beat faster, their friends’ and families’ hearts also sped up. Quite literally, the fire-walking ritual resulted in many hearts beating as one, suggesting that rituals can increase community cohesion.
Some of the same anthropologists who studied heart rates during fire-walking also conducted research on performers in the Kavadi Attam. In these investigations, an experimenter approached participants immediately after their march and asked them how much they’d be willing to anonymously donate to their temple. The result was a powerful testament to the social glue of ritual: Those who performed in the Kavadi Attam donated significantly more than did people who’d been praying in the temple three days earlier—about 130 rupees as compared with 80 rupees, a difference equivalent to half a day’s salary for an unskilled worker.
We needn’t travel to faraway places to see how following social norms, like participating in rituals, can increase group cohesion and cooperation.
In a series of experiments, psychologists put people into groups and then had them endure an unpleasant experience together. They couldn’t ask their participants to walk across hot coals or put skewers through their chests (that would be a bit much for the ethics board!), but they did ask them to stick their hands in ice water, do painful squats, or eat chili peppers together. As compared with groups that didn’t experience any collective painful experience, the groups that endured pain reported a remarkably higher sense of bonding. They also cooperated much more in subsequent economic games
where each person in the group had opportunities to be selfish and take money for themselves.
Research also suggests that merely following the same exact routine with others is sufficient to increase cooperation.
In a study at New Zealand’s University of Otago, groups that marched around a stadium together in sync later put more effort into a group task (picking up coins scattered on the stadium floor) as compared with those who walked at their own pace.
Being in sync with others actually enables us to coordinate to perform complex tasks. In one study, pairs of participants who moved synchronously were later better able to work together to maneuver a ball through a challenging maze as compared to those who didn’t. These results tell us how extraordinarily important it is for human groups to follow social norms, especially if they want to succeed at collective activities that require good coordination, such as hunting, foraging, or warfare.
The fact is, human groups often follow social norms even when they don’t appear to fulfill their original function. Let’s revisit the handshake.
Researchers from Harvard Business School have found that negotiators who shake hands are friendlier toward their negotiation partners and routinely generate better outcomes than those who don’t. By facilitating cooperation, handshakes, it seems, took on a vital social function even as their original purpose became obsolete.
In the past, norms helped bind us to others in very small groups. But today they’re critical for helping us coordinate on an extremely large scale—with thousands, if not millions, of people globally. Every day, we’re collectively engaged in a colossal exercise in norm coordination. We do it so effortlessly that we may take it for granted—call it “nor
mative autopilot.” For instance, you stop when the light is red, and go when it turns green. You get in the back of lines instead of cutting to the front. When you enter a library, movie theater, elevator, or airplane, you quiet down, as do those around you. This is coordination on a large scale, and social norms are the mechanism that enables us to do it.
Social norms are the building blocks of social order; without them, society would crumble. If people didn’t abide by socially expected rules, their behavior would be unbearably unpredictable. We wouldn’t be able to coordinate our actions to do most anything—from getting place to place to having meaningful conversations to running a large organization. Schools wouldn’t function. Police, if there were any, would be ineffective, given the lack of rules and shared standards for adhering to laws and respecting their authority. Government services would cease to operate, resulting in the inability to provide the public with highways, sanitation services, clean water, or national defense. Unable to control their employees’ behaviors, companies would quickly go out of business. Without these shared standards of behavior, families would splinter apart.
Clearly, it’s in our interest to adhere to social norms. Indeed, according to anthropologist Joseph Henrich, our survival as a species has depended on it. Let’s face it: Physically, humans are quite weak compared with many other species. We’re not very fast, don’t have good camouflage abilities, have poor climbing skills, and don’t hear or see particularly well, Henrich argues in
The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. We’d soon perish if we were stranded on an island with little food or protection from predators. Then how did we end up eating other animals rather than being eaten?
Henrich makes an important point: We can’t just credit our high IQs. If we were stranded alone on that island, our advanced ability to
reason wouldn’t save us. Rather, when people have thrived in the face of adversity, they’ve done so because of other people and the social norms they’ve created together. Social norms have helped us cooperate for millennia. Groups that have cooperated have been able to not only survive the toughest environmental conditions, but also thrive and spread across the entire planet in ways that no other nonhuman species has. Indeed, we learned that if we don’t follow our group’s cultural norms, we end up in deep trouble. Ignoring social norms not only can damage our reputations, but also may result in ostracism, even death. From an evolutionary perspective, people who developed keen abilities to follow social norms may have been more likely to survive and thrive. This powerful fact has made us a
remarkably cooperative species—but only so long as the interactions are between people who share the same basic norms. When groups with fundamentally different cultural mind-sets meet, conflict abounds.
Thus the paradox: While norms have been the secret to our success, they’re also the source of massive conflict all around the world.