Social Norms and Conformity


This paper examines the situational influence of social norms and their role in directing people’s behavior and perceived expectations of other’s beliefs and actions. The paper analyzes two academic journal articles covering social norms and conformity behavior. The first study is of Norwegian Air Force cadets and their conformity to the social expectations of the situation and the influence of precedence set by confederates in regards to jumping off an ocean pier while blindfolded. Confederate behavior dramatically influenced cadet behavior by doubling the amount of refusals to jump. The second study is of a modified Dictator’s Game wherein participant behavior is modified by providing different true statements of past Dictator’s Games. The results from this study indicate that people are influenced primarily by social behavioral norms than social belief norms. A comparison of the two papers indicates that social norms set by peers wield a tremendous influence over people’s behavior.

Social Norms and Conformity

Research indicates that people naturally use peer social norms to direct their thoughts and behaviors, and will conform to those norms even when confronted with opposing social expectations or moral dilemmas. Conformity is the human tendency to conform to the opinions, views, and behavior of the surrounding people (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2016). Social norms are the set of behaviors considered acceptable and proper in any given social group and subgroups. Social psychology’s term Conformity describes many types of conforming, from simple actions like sitting when the rest of the group sits to more serious behaviors like obeying a commanding officer to commit international war crimes.

The concepts of conformity and social norms are so intrinsic to the question of free will, morality, and character that they are largely responsible for the field of social psychology. They form the mainstay topic of consideration when asking how people behave around one another (Aronson, et al. 2016). There are many reasons and mechanisms that lead to conforming and so the concept cannot simply be attributed to a single cause or social desire. This means that what may be true for one form of conformity may not hold for another.

Research on conformity began after the notorious international trials for Nazi war crimes. A common defense seen during these trials was that of simply following orders. Stanley Milgram began research with the intent of disproving the concept of conformity and obedience, yet he learned that people have a deep seated drive to follow the trends around them, even to the point of manslaughter (Aronson, et al. 2016). Under specific situations, people will tend to follow social norms, regardless of their personal beliefs.

Because people are capable of violating their own personal morality when conforming socially, it is necessary to understand the motives and social phenomena involved in the process of social conformity and social norms so that social changes which promote prosocial conformity are bolstered while negative forms of conformity are mitigated. Although the majority attention is placed on research on conformity focusing on the negative or neutral attributes of conformity, research exists that details the conformity process when choosing to defy social norms and/or when to engage in prosocial behavior. We will look at two such articles, Firing, Karlsdottir, Laberg, and Wicklund’s research on situational social (2012) norms and Biccheri and Ziao’s research on prosocial research (2009).

Article I

Firing et al.’s (2012) research, entitled “An experimental study of social norms in situation” details an experiment on Norwegian air force cadets’ probability of following social expectations when given an example of social refusal. Based on prior experiments, the researchers assumed that participant’s when seeking to conform to social norms would respond to an ambiguous situation by following the obvious social norms. Specifically, the researchers expected the cadets when primed by a confederate cadet who refused the task, the participant cadets would be more likely to refuse the task as well.


The 72 cadets were all drawn from the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy, both female and male ranging in ages 19 to 28. The experiment design used a modified ceremony of the Academy’s wherein cadets were blindfolded and brought to a pier facing the Norwegian ocean and asked, not ordered, to jump into the water (Firing, et al. 2012). The experiment deviated from the ceremony by pairing the participants with a confederate soldier who acted as the independent variable. The two groups were divided by whether or not the confederate would accept the invitation to jump off the pier or politely refuse the request.

The dependent variable was simply the observation of whether the participant jumped into the water (Firing, et al. 2012). The confederate cadet acted as the independent variable, and the test used a simple post-test to provide feedback and ask for the cadet’s motivations and decision makings. The supervisors were all Academy staff and would, when prompted, answer basic questions on the safety and relative risk of jumping off the pier.  It is important to note that the participants remained blindfolded until they either jumped off the pier or refused to jump off the pier, therefore questioning the supervisors was common.

Study Results

Depending on the confederate’s influence, the participant jump rate reduced by 25%, from 76% to 51% (Firing, et al. 2012). Although the majority of the total participants jumped off the pier, 48 of the 75, the distribution of those refused in the anti-jump norm group was double that of the control group.  The social norm set by a peer therefore exerted a significant enough influence to counter the military social expectation of exceeding expectations and taking on any tasks given (Firing, et al. 2012).

Impact on Social Conformity and Social Norms

These results demonstrate a distinction between peer and authority based conformity. The expectations from superiors form only one aspect of social norms. Further, the results demonstrate the roles in which individuals use their peers to establish a social norm to follow. Social norms become more powerful when there is a perceived absence of choice. By providing a second salient social norm, individuals in turn become more likely to choose a second course of action than what is given to them. In effect, this demonstrates the power of a single social norm versus multiple salient social norms (Firing, et al. 2012).

Article II

Social norms are roughly broken into two elements, one which describes the perceived social expectations of the group, normative expectations, and the other the perceived expectation for how the individual members of the group will act, empirical expectations, (Bicchieri & Xiao, 2009). Researchers Bicchieri and Xiao (2009) both operated on the concept that empirical expectations, what a person believes others will do, and normative expectations, what a person believes others believe is right to do, operate separately and that their impact will vary. In order to test this hypothesis, they used the Dictators Game model, which gives one player control over another player’s payout to test how different supplied information influenced the dictator player’s decision (Xiao & Houser, 2008).


The Dictator Game is a social game wherein participants are divided into pairs, where the dictator player has control over how much of a cash prize he, and the corresponding receiver player receives. Neither player knows who the other player is, nor does the receiver player have any way to influence the dictator player’s decision. Using this system, researchers Biccieri and Xiao (2009) supplied different information to the dictator players to determine their subsequent behavior.

Study Results

Six values for the independent variable were: a fair belief, a selfish belief, a fair choice, a selfish choice, a fair belief with a selfish choice, and a selfish belief with a fair choice. Of the four single variables, the results were as expected, with the participants’ reported expectations exceeding or falling below the 50% mark based on their inputs. The participants who received the fair belief or fair choice cues were more likely to divide their rewards equally with the receiver players. The players who received unfair belief or unfair choice cues were more likely to unfairly divide their rewards with their corresponding receiver players.

As previously mentioned, there were six forms of the independent variable cues. Breaking these groups into three subgroups, based on the number and type of inputs, allows for easier analysis of the results. Therefore, of the two groups who received uniform information on both the normative and empirical expectation cues, the recipients who received both fair cues were fairer in their own game decision while players who received both unfair cues were statistically more likely to make unfair decisions in their own games. The players who received mixed messages on both the normative and empirical expectation cues tended to favor the empirical cue over the normative cue.

Players who received only one form of expectation cue tended to make little distinction between the two forms of cues, using the known expectation to double for the unknown expectation. One notable exception is that the players given the unfair normative belief gave a higher expectation for unfair empirical actions, implying a stronger response to unexpected, unfair beliefs (Bicchieri & Xiao, 2009, p.199).Interestingly, the selfish belief cue lead the participants to assume a lower percentage of fair choices in the current group’s views than the participants given the selfish choice cue gave for the group’s choice or belief. Significance being that an expectation of unfair beliefs is more ambiguous and more likely to cause the participant to overestimate the actions of the group whereas reports on choices lead to more accurate predictions of behavior.

Overall, the findings indicate that normative beliefs are used to extrapolate empirical facts. When normative beliefs come into conflict with empirical expectations, individuals will be more inclined to follow the empirical social expectation over the normative social expectation (Bicchieri & Xiao, 2009, p.202). Interestingly, individuals appear more inclined to extrapolate immoral actions to correspondingly larger unethical beliefs.

Impact on Social Conformity and Social Norms

These results demonstrate a strong tie between a person’s behavior and their interpretations of their peer’s social norms. When a person believes that their group will behave in a particular way, the majority of the individuals follow this expectation rather than their personal beliefs. Additionally, reported beliefs are more likely influenced by moment by moment information than is commonly assumed.  Further, the results add insight into the way in which people evaluate the social norms of their surroundings. Beliefs on opinions are not nearly as important as beliefs on actions. Applying this to social situations, a person is far more likely to follow a social norm of behavior than a social norm of belief.

Cross Comparison

In both experiments, the participants were drawn from both genders, were reasonably educated, and were of approximate age. The primary differences of the two experiments were that Firing et al. (2012) drew their participants from a Norwegian Air Force academy and Bicchiere and Xiao (2009) drew their students from University of Pennsylvania students. Firing et al. used a confederate and a relatively simple measurement for results, whether or not the cadet jumped, while Bicchiere and Xiao used multiple stages, variables, and tests to determine both the results and internal thoughts of the participants.

Similarities and Differences

The similarities of the studies are that individuals will generally follow the actions of their peers over the social normative expectations of the situation.  In both studies, the participants were statistically more motivated to follow the empirical examples of their peers. The Norwegian Air Force cadets followed the example of their confederate, and the dictator players followed their expectations of how their fellow players would act.

However, both studies exhibited different framing, objectives, and social training, neither study actively encouraged participants to engage in unethical behavior, yet the Air Force cadets were choosing merely to jump or not jump off a pier, while the dictator players were attempting to determine how much money to give themselves versus how much money to deprive from the other player.


Conformity and social norms are powerful elements of human behavior which can lead to both prosocial and unethical behavior. While these factors do not excuse the individual of their personal responsibility for their actions, they do demonstrate the power of the situation over the individual. Having a stronger understanding of conformity is vital to developing socially responsible organizations and preparing individuals to behave ethically in their surroundings.

Firing, Karlsdottir, Laberg, and Wicklund’s research on situational social (2012) norms demonstrates that the social norms established by peers in ambiguous situations can have a significant impact on individual behavior.  Biccheri and Ziao’s research on prosocial research (2009) demonstrates that an individual’s empirical expectations exhibits greater influence over their actions than the normative expectations component of social norms.

Combining the results of these two experiments, social norms and conformity are demonstrated to both inform individuals of appropriate actions in ambiguous situations and influence behavior generally held to be ethical and moral in nature. A salient fact that ought to be remembered is that a minority of participants from both experiments followed their own personal views and values regardless of their situations. Because conformity is both a pervasive and non-complete phenomena of human behavior, there is room for influencing the group through social norms to behave more ethically and morally in any group situation.


Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., & Akert, R. M. (2016). Social Psychology, custom edition for Liberty University Online (Custom). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Bicchieri, C., & Xiao, E. (2009). Do the right thing: But only if others do so. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 22(2), 191-208.

Firing, K., Karlsdottir, R., Laberg, J. C., & Wicklund, R. A. (2012, Nov). An experimental study of social norms in situation. Military Psychology, 24(6), 542-550.

Xiao, E., & Houser, D. (2008). Emotion Expression and Fairness in Economic Exchange. Working Paper.

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