What’s the norm?

Three doodles stand in line. The first doodle is upside down on top of a cat, saying "Hey face! Nice barrel!" The second doodle is wearing a barrel, holding a spoon, and saying "I'm a barrel of laughs!" The third doodle has a shoe on its hand and is saying "Chicken nuggets!"

Have you ever wondered why you shake hands when you meet someone new or send a text to let your friend know that you’re running late? It’s not because you have to, dear readers. It’s because it’s the norm — the social norm, that is.

Social norms are a set of unspoken rules or behaviors that are considered acceptable in a group or society. Behavior that’s outside of social norms is generally considered rude or offensive — or, at the very least, odd.

Think about the last time you ate at a restaurant. Did you:

  • Chew with your mouth open
  • Eat soup with a fork
  • Order food that wasn’t on the menu
  • Bang on the table to get your server’s attention

If you answered “no” to all of these questions, congratulations! You’re clearly an expert on social norms.

Social norms are everywhere — even in the health world. Some studies, like this one, have shown that social norms can influence health-related behaviors like eating habits and physical activity. Or take teen smoking: teens who think it’s acceptable or normal for their peers to smoke are more likely to start smoking themselves.

These unspoken rules can help us understand, predict, and influence people’s health behaviors. For example, this message works to challenge misconceptions and establish a healthier social norm around teen smoking:

Everyone is not doing it: 4 out of 5 teens don’t smoke! The tobacco companies spend a lot of money to make people think smoking is popular.

Health communicators can use social norms to develop effective health messages and encourage healthy behavior change. So give it a try! (After all, everyone’s doing it.)

The bottom line: Social norms play a big role in our everyday choices and behaviors.