Social norms are widely held (though often unspoken) expectations about what is and is not acceptable or appropriate behaviour in particular settings and situations. Such norms are well entrenched but often change over time, and sometimes can be shifted through strategic intervention. A striking example can be found in the successful campaign to “de-normalize” smoking in public. Just a generation or so ago, smoking was the sign of the sexy, interesting maverick; today it has become effectively suppressed as inconsiderate and self-defeating behaviour. Regulatory measures that restrict smoking are essential but it is the social norms more than laws that govern what people do. By contrast, consider jaywalking – a common behaviour that is also legally forbidden but socially accepted and rarely sanctioned.
Ultimately, how people choose to act is more important than what they think and feel, and actions can be influenced more effectively than attitudes and beliefs. This makes social norms a valuable pathway for policy makers to develop programs and policies that effectively promote positive behaviours and de-normalize negative ones, in such areas as anti-racism, public health and environmental protection.
Social norms about racism and prejudice. Dismantling racism is a daunting challenge because it is systemically embedded in society and resistant to legal and policy interventions; a function of history, deeply-held attitudes and values, and institutional frameworks. The outward expression of racism and intolerance is in many ways governed by collective social norms relating to acceptable behavior and speech, which makes them an important focus for effectively addressing racism at a societal level.
Read our Op-ed in The Globe and Mail (published Feb 6, 2021)
The Environics Institute (and partners) plan to conduct new research to map selected social norms in Canadian society pertaining to treatment of individuals and groups from specific parts of society who experience prejudice and intolerance (with a focus on people who are Black or Indigenous). The research will create empirical measures of the norms in terms of their overall strength, their distribution across the population (e.g., by region, community size, demographic characteristics). A second dimension of the research will focus on how individuals within these targeted groups experience the breaking of these norms
Social norms and Covid-19 prevention. Effective management of the Covid-19 pandemic depends upon citizen compliance with a prescribed set of protective actions, ranging from wearing masks, maintaining social distance, limiting travel and socializing, and getting tested should symptoms be experienced. Such compliance has proven to be uneven over time and across groups, despite ongoing efforts by governments and public health authorities through messaging and regulation. Successful suppression of Covid-19 may well rest on the formation of strong norms that place the requisite social pressures on Canadians to minimize the risks to themselves and others.
The Environics Institute (and partners) plan to launch a new project to measure selected social norms in Canadian society pertaining to Covid-19 behaviours (e.g., mask usage, social distancing). The research will establish empirical measures of the norms in terms of their overall strength and their distribution across the population (e.g., by region, community size, demographic characteristics). These social norms metrics are intended to provide public health agencies and others with valuable indicators of public compliance with essential protective behaviours that may prove more accurate than those relying on self-reporting.
This research is the first of its kind to address social norms on a population level, and is intended to serve as a foundation for future research to identify how such norms are evolving over time (through subsequent surveys), and for more in-depth focus within specific communities, population subgroups and organizational culture. Once social norms are clearly defined and measurable, strategies can then be formulated around changing them. Because this research will break new ground, it presents a tremendous opportunity for demonstrating leadership in developing the knowledge required for effectively addressing the endemic challenges of prejudice and intolerance in our society.
For more information, contact Dr. Keith Neuman [email protected]