Why do we follow norms?

in That Makes Sense by

Editor’s Note: “Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.” ― Stanley Milgram

We are currently living in a world which is dynamic and runs like a multi-tiered puppetry. Our every action is governed by a set of rules and regulations. We being a part of this society, view ourselves as just instruments full filling another person’s command. But aren’t we people with awareness and perception? Why don’t we question authority? What is enslaving million of people around the globe? Are the free thinking scientist and creatives falling victims of such norms?

P Surat Saravanan’s article will help you to take a moment to think about rules, how they originated, what is so compelling about these norms? She believes studying and analyzing several models can contribute to predicting human behavior and decision-making process. – Rituparna Chakrabarti


It is 2nd of July 2014. Yoshuki Sasai, a Japanese stem-cell researcher at RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology has just published a letter expressing his remorse. He had published two breakthrough articles in Nature, a top scientific journal, showing a simple method of converting any somatic cell into a stem cell. However, several allegations soon emerged; RIKEN initiated an investigation and found Sasai guilty of scientific misconduct and fabrication.

Moving on…. 17th January 2016, the day Rohith Vemula, a Dalit committed suicide. His letter states, “My birth is a fatal accident…The value of man was reduced to his immediate identity…”. The country is raging with physical and intellectual caste battles on the roads and in coffee shops.

Now it’s 22nd May 2017, Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old suicide bomber has just detonated a shrapnel-loaded homemade bomb at the exit of Manchester Arena, Manchester. As the smoke, debris, and shrapnel spread, traumatised parents and kids watch in shock, each rushing to reach the exit.

We are still in 2017. Maybe, even yesterday or today for that matter. “Argh! He burped again! Why do you have to do that? Could you please accept that it’s rude to do that?” Rose exclaimed, tired of her brother’s annoying habit she had been trying to curb for years now.

What’s the common thread between these cases? Connecting them might appear like solving a graphic jigsaw puzzle session in dark, but there is a common link – the baggage of norms. Our social behavior emerges because of several intertwined factors: what are the efforts required for a task (cost) and what are the involved material benefits, instincts, socio-cultural and religious norms set per the society. Norms are agreed upon rules and set of expectations that we are supposed to follow and presume others to reciprocate within a situation.

We might behave in a restricted manner, cherry picking those we interact with and letting them transcend our inner circles; often biased by their caste, race and gender identity. Sometimes these norms push towards extremism, where one is even ready to give up their lives for the religion/ideals. Other times, towards not-so-extreme like controlling our burps in public. Some of the ideas of how people respond to social conformity were tested in the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch. The experiments showed how an individual opinion or behavior could be completely molded by the opinion of people around. Milgram’s studies can now be enjoyed in the movie Experimenter. Scientists are also confronted with norms referred to as the ‘Mertonian Norms’. One of the four Mertonian norms is ‘disinterestedness’, which specifies that scientists should act only for the progress of science and not personal gain. This norm is often violated when a scientist misinforms or fabricates evidence to publish their work, like in our first example.



Norms – society’s ‘invisible hand’

“Ravi regretted his decision as soon as he put the spoon in his mouth. It tasted like heaven, but the guilt weighed heavy on his heart and mind. He had always watched his friends from the sidelines eating seekh kebabs every Wednesday at the corner shop. He berated himself for his fickle mind and went back to his aloo-gobi. His family had been vegetarians since time immemorial. His parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents…we could go on for a while. That night before sleep, he forced the thoughts of a roasted golden chicken out of his mind and instead tried to think about potatoes!”

One of the features of internalising a norm is that it becomes an end in itself rather than a tool to achieve your goals. Violating them can be psychologically painful. Although Ravi has no particular empathy towards plants or animals, he still avoids eating non-vegetarian food as it is emotionally painful for him to indulge in it after years of abstinence.

Following norms is associated with two main protagonists: (i) the norm abiders, those who may go to any lengths to abide by the norm, even at a personal expense (an extreme example is suicide bombers). They resort to punishing (ii) the norm violators (as seen during caste based honor killings). So, with its exacting personal cost, how did norms evolve in a society that primarily believes in ‘rational egoism’ (an action is rational only if it maximises self-interest)?

Two researchers from the University of Tennessee and University of California, Davis set out to answer this question1.


The experiment

Sergey Gavrilets and Peter J. Richerson simulated groups with a constant population size. The individuals in the group could participate in collective activities that require efforts and thus, a cost. However, the benefits of cooperative activities were also shared equally among the members. Both cost and punishment were incorporated as numeric variables which could equal 0 or 1. They looked at two kinds of collective activities: ‘us vs. nature’, where groups had to defend, hunt and breed cooperatively. Second, ‘us vs. them’, which includes inter-group conflicts over territory, mating partners and trade routes. The individuals in the simulation can also punish the free-riders – members who reap the benefits without contributing to efforts. However, punishing the free-riders also involves a cost for the other members as it requires constant monitoring. At the end of each simulation, the survival of the groups is proportional to their success in collective actions. Also, the survival and reproduction of the individuals in the groups are proportional to the accumulated material payoffs.

They extended this model to understand norm internalisation. They assumed that individuals live in a pro-social environment where they learn from their parents, friends and peers to contribute to collective actions and punish the free-riders. However, these decisions can be modified by how much they have internalised the norm and what are the material benefits. They treated norm internalisation (Ƞ) as a continuous trait ranging from 0 to 1 (Ƞ=1 represented under-socialized individuals who did not care about the norm, while Ƞ=1 represented over-socialized individuals who do not care about the material payoffs but the norms). The authors found that promoting costly punishment led to more efficient norm internalisation, than the allure of benefits of participation. Thus, they speculate that society and groups which impose disapproval or punishment on the norm violators rather than promote the benefits of cooperative participation will have stronger norm internalisation. They also found that stronger norm internalisation led to increased cooperation and monitoring or punishing the free-riders in both ‘us vs. nature’ and ‘us vs. them’ activities.

Although increasing norm internalisation promoted collective activities, the material benefits and biological fitness may vary. In case of the ‘us vs them’ paradigm, increased norm internalisation may decrease biological fitness. This may be due to ‘rent dissipation’ (resources pooled by individuals are much more than the benefits of cooperation). For example, ‘rent dissipation’ can become very large in cases of inter-group conflicts, such as wars or feuds which have a high death rate.


Evolutionary origins

Next, we try to understand how did such a behavior evolve.

When human beings evolved to perform several kinds of intra- and inter-group activities, including hunting, mating, territory acquisition and/or trade route conflicts, an individual in a group could either make a decision after processing the costs and benefits associated with each behavior, or it could “copy the most successful” in the group2,3. Choosing the second option reduced the mental calculation for cost-benefit evaluation for each task, costs to acquire information and processing errors. Thus, in a variable environment following previously set rules might help in making a faster decision. Kids, who have error-prone information processing and lack the information to make the cost-benefit analysis, start following norms as early as 2–3 years. For them, this may provide a way to adapt to their niche and provide protection from the social hazards. Kids initially follow norms as a form of imitating their parent’s reactions to different situations. Studies have found that 3-year-olds not only imitate their parents in following the norms but also start enforcing it on others4.

Following norms may yet have another advantage. Till around 7000 AD, human beings lived in isolated colonies and then they started agriculture. This led to bigger societies of non-kin (individuals not related to each other) living together. These populations had to ensure that people live, cooperate and share in a society unrelated to each other. This was probably when following norms stepped in. Norms helped in synchronizing the behavior of a larger society living together, allowing mutually beneficial cooperative behavior. Indeed, mimicry has been shown to increase cooperative behavior. However, synchronising the behavior of small vs. a large population can be a different game altogether. The authors also found that smaller groups have higher norm internalisation, whereas the larger groups, biological fitness is higher if they do not evolve internalisation. This could be due to the fact that larger groups require more cost for the individuals to monitor and punish the free-riders, which is an integral part of norm internalisation.


Where do we stand?

Every day, we make decisions on how to respond to different social situations and norms are one such factor which influences our decision. These models can help predict human behavior and decision making. Additionally, also provide ways to optimise them. For e.g., going back to our initial example of a violation of the Mertonian norm. Could enforcing stronger backlash for scientific misconduct prove to more effective in enforcing this norm, rather than promoting the idea of altruism and benefit of scientific enterprise?

Studies like these will navigate us one step closer towards answering such questions.


  1. Gavrilets, S. & Richerson, P. J. Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization. 1–6 (2017). doi:10.1073/pnas.1703857114
  2. Chudek, M. & Henrich, J. psychology and the emergence of human prosociality. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 218–226 (2011).
  3. Henrich-and-Ensminger-Ch.2-2014.pdf.
  4. Hardecker, S. & Tomasello, M. From imitation to implementation : How two- and three-year-old children learn to enforce social norms. 1–12 (2016). doi:10.1111/bjdp.12159


About the Author

P Surat Saravanan completed her Ph.D. from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. She spent her graduate school years looking down through microscopes in dark rooms, staring at confocal images for hours, and praying to Drosophila Gods to make them lay more eggs – in the hope of trying to understand what makes a cell behave the way it does. Currently, she is a freelance science editor and writer. Apart from science writing, she is also passionate about cubist art.



Editor: Rituparna Chakrabarti, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

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  1. Extremely thought provoking. Forced me to reflect over all those various ‘norms’ that I have been tied to. Time to rethink and think fresh! Nice piece of work Surat.

  2. I couldn’t quite follow the inclusion of the suicide bomber incident in this article. Suicide bombing is very specific to a set of doctrines prescribed in one religion. No Jain or an episcopalian or an Amish or a Quaker has ever been implicated as a suicide bomber so far.

  3. The inclusion of suicide attacks is an extreme example show how far a person can go to follow a norm. Also, a study done on Palestinians and Israeli settlers (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19170938) has shown that within-group cooperation and parochial altruism is a greater predictor for suicide attacks than religious devotion. Suicide attacks are also observed in non-religious groups (Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka). Different social mechanisms can build intra-group cooperation, such as collective religious rituals for religious groups or youth groups, military parades etc. (as employed by LTTE) for non-religious groups. So rather than using suicide bombing as an example of religious norm, it has been used as an example to show that (in certain cases) one may follow a norm (social, cultural, or religious) even if it is detrimental to oneself.

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