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The power of personal norms

Photo of boy in schoolroom with glasses

Did your dad ever let you change the gears while he was driving?

In a nutshell

  1. Our personal norms are formed when we're young, and as we mature we evolve our ideas of what seems right and what feels wrong.
  2. Our beliefs evolve based on the company we keep and the cultural forces that surround us - and they are a strong driver of our behaviour.
  3. Understanding how personal norms work in balance with societal expectation and socially observable norms is critical to behaviour change.

Disclosure: yes, he did, and no, it isn’t behaviour to be condoned on public roads. I’ve been writing about our system of norms lately, using examples from childhood because this is the time when we embed the influence of norms. We learn the value of complying (love and cuddles) and the penalties associated with lack of obedience. When we are old enough to make friends, we learn the positive reinforcement of conformity to socially observable norms. 

Norms form an interdependent system which needs to be in balance. Imbalance is uncomfortable. It gives rise to uncertainty and uses unnecessary precious resources, i.e. energy because of the friction in the system. Dad knew where he was steering the car and which gear he needed, but with me in control of the gears there was the potential for friction in the system, relying on his coordination with the clutch and me selecting the right gear. It didn’t always work!

Keeping norms in balance

Though our early years are when our personal norms take form, as we mature we evolve our own ideas of what seems right and what feels wrong. Our beliefs evolve based on the company we keep and the cultural forces that surround us. They are a strong driver of behaviour. If you believe that inflicting physical punishment on anyone is wrong, you will probably believe it’s wrong to hit your children in order to discipline them. In New Zealand the law supports that view, so you understand how society expects you to behave and you don’t generally see people hitting their children, so observed social norms support your view, hence the system of norms that steer you is in balance.

It is not always like that. Often the system is out of balance and that gives us the opportunity to change behaviour. Yes, we can nudge and push people towards the best choices and behavioural decisions but that won’t be enough without a good tug from norms to pull people toward that choice. And it’s not always obvious where there is imbalance, it needs a bit of unpicking.

Norm triad diagram

Take racism. Your personal norms may be strongly anti-racism. In NZ we have laws against discrimination, so we are clear on what society expects of us and, by and large, most of us won’t witness racism in our everyday lives – or, we don’t think we do. Yet our media feeds and TV screens over the past few months have suggested otherwise, which challenges our view of how others behave, at least among some groups of people. 

When the model is out of balance in this particular way (such as personal norms being different to social norms), we typically see the rise of popular movements, as well as the work of artists and creatives. If you haven’t seen this video of the dance group Diversity, it’s well worth watching. Art matters at times like this. The shock of the new is the domain of artists and creatives everywhere to do more than report news but instead to ignite a reaction to rewire our thinking and correct the balance.

It causes us to audit our personal norms – does my behaviour align with my personal norms? What about unconscious bias – have I got that in check, with a strategy to neutralize it? If you aim to change people’s behaviour you need to get to this type of dynamic leverage point. 

For example, if the concept of unconscious bias is not widely understood, the starting point could be raising awareness to enable people to correct the balance in their system of norms. This will in turn trigger behaviour change – heightened awareness of unconscious bias in themselves, calling out the actions of others, thinking through strategies to counter unforeseen consequences, contributing to word of mouth discussion among their social reference group.

These same principles apply to encouraging operational efficiencies for commercial organisations as apply to significant behaviour change for the good of society. For example, people’s personal norms used to be based on the belief that only a paper document was trusted and authentic evidence: a cheque, a ticket, a signed contract, a boarding pass. They saw others using paper documents, they had filing boxes because they were told to “keep the receipt”. But, few people now request paper statements from their service providers because these companies successfully changed the norms, telling customers that their other customers were saving paper by accepting electronic documents plus societal norms expected us to reduce paper waste. Yes, of course it also had to be easy to do, but the default of using paper documents was an entrenched behaviour so the status quo was even easier. Consequently, a nudge alone would not have achieved the same result as shifting the norms.

After a few painful gear change crunches, my father changed his personal norm about encouraging me to learn by letting me do the gear change, it was cheaper to give me a pack of Polo mints to occupy my hands and mind. If only it was that easy to fix embedded norms about racism, but let’s keep working on it.

Want to learn more about social norms and behaviour change? 

Watch our Norm Storming Webinar:

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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