Social Norms : an analysisWe live in an environment that is strong with influence attempts. A large portion of the population makes a living simply attempting to get others to comply with their requests. Whether a manager encouraging productivity, a policeman directing traffic, a salesperson closing a sale, or a president telling us we need to spend more money on social programs. Each of us is subjected to an uncountable number of influential attempts each day. Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living and it is only the person dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, with defiance or submission, to the commands of others (Elms 1995, p. 28). For many people, obedience is deeply ingrained behavior tendency, a compelling impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct. Obedience has been a determinant of behavior established from 1933- 1945 when millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. (Pettijohn, 1995, p. 196). Obedience to destructive authority was indeed a crucial social issue in 1962. (Elms 1995, p.21) American military advisers were being ordered to Vietnam in increasing number for forestall Communist control of southeast Asia (Elms, 1995 p. 21). Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University conducted an innovative study. It addressed the endless conflict between obedience and conscience. In the experiment, the teacher was to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to the learner upon each mistake. When the teacher asked for advice regarding increasing the punishments, He/she was verbally encouraged to continue Ultimately, 65% of the teachers obeyed orders to punish the learner all the way to the end of the 450-volt scale. Not a single teacher disobeyed orders before reaching 300 volts. (Elms 1995, P. 25). Obedience significantly dropped when the experimenter was absent, or when the experimenter provided contradictory instructions (Modigliani and Rochat 1995, p. 120) In fact, at times, the teacher questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for shocking the learner. Once the experimenter assumed full responsibility, the teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking. (Pettijohn, 1995, P.200). Although there is much debate over the extent to which Milgram s studies demonstrate the susceptibility of people to the commands of authority figures, There is no doubt that his work has tremendous value and is among the most widely discussed in social psychology (Drout and Vander, 1993. p.595) Milgram s experiment was designed to show that people are very influenced by someone of authority. Philip Zombardo (1988) conducted an experiment using volunteer guards and prisoners in the basement of Stanford University. The initial experiment was planned to last for 14 days and had to be cut short after 6 days (Brady and Logsdon 1988, p.706). This was due to the unexpected and disturbing results encountered. The prisoners were given numbers instead of being able to use their names, and given prison clothing to wear. The prisoners were belittled and dehumanized (Brady and Logsdon 1988, p. 706) This shows along with Milgrams experiment that people can become locked into roles from which they find it difficult to escape. Although all of Zimbardo s subjects were fully aware of the nature of the experiment, it becomes clear that given the authority, many individuals will violate the boundaries of widely held norms and beliefs about what is and what is not acceptable. Many theorist believe that norms are powerful social influences that people would resist if they could. Norms are consensual standards that describe what behaviors should and should not be performed in a given context. They prescribe the socially appropriate way to respond in the situation. People who do not comply with the norms of a situation and cannot provide an acceptable explanation for their violation are looked upon negatively (Franzoi 1996, p. 267). Norms, if written down become formal rules of proper conduct, but in most instances norms are adopted unquestionably as people arrange their behavior until approval from others is clear. Individuals, once they join with others, rapidly structure their experiences until they conform to a general standard (Franzoi, 261). This standard can be forced upon the group by an outside authority or a group leader, but Sherif notes in his studies that in most instances norms develop through reciprocal influence. People do not actively try to conform to the judgments of others, but instead use the “group consensus” to revise their own opinions and beliefs (Franzoi, 1996, p. 262). Sherif researched this process of how group pressures influence the judgments of individuals in an ambiguous situation, by taking a group of male college students into a visual perception experiment (Franzoi, 1996, p. 261). The experiment involved having subjects judge the amount of movement of a light that was actually stationary, but appeared to move when viewed in darkness. Originally, the subjects; judgments varied widely, but when they made their judgments in a group, their estimates converged; individual subjects met the group norm even when they made judgments alone (Franzoi, 1996, p. 261).
Norms exert such a powerful influence on behavior that even indiviuals who privately reject their society s norms usually follow some standards of conformity. Asch documented the human tendency to conform to norms experimently by placing indiviuals into groups that were making incorrect judgements about the length of lines (Franzoi, 1996, p. 266). Norms are not only external constraints but internalized standard; people feel duty bound to adhere too. Milgram s study, On Maintaining social Norms documented the personal consequences of violating norms. He had men and women board an New York City subway and perform a simple behavior; asking someone for their seat. In this situation all people understand and accept the rule “all seats are filled” so asking someone to give up their seat is a norm violation (Milgram, 1992, p. 38). Still many people gave up their seats, apparently because the request took them by surprise, they wanted to avoid interaction, or because they normalized the situation by concluding that the requestor was ill. Milgram was particularly intrigued , by they reaction displayed by the norm- violators. Even though they were volunteers who were deliberating breaking the situational norms. ” They reported when standing in front of a subject, they felt anxious, tenses and embarrassed. Frequently, they were unable to vocalize the request for a seat and had to withdraw” (Milgram, 1992, p.42). In an experiment performed during the Spring semester at Monmouth University, students from a social psychology class were asked to go to the mall and perform simple requests of asking people where a major store was. However, they were told to ask from different proximities to get the reactions of the shoppers. The first proximity was 12 feet most of the subjects stopped came closer and gave directions. The second proximity was 3 feet at this distance most of the subjects gave direction. The last proximity was 1 foot or less, which clearly violates the norm of personal space. Here the majority of the subjects observed, gave no directions and backed away. At this proximity even the researchers felt uncomfortable, some couldn t even perform the task. What can be considered as a social norm in one group or society may not be accepted elsewhere. Norms, are not merely external forces that require certain kinds of actions in certain kinds of situations. They are a fundamental components of social structure that links each individual to social order.