In sociology and psychology, descriptive norms can be defined as those rules that people feel they have to follow based on what the typical person might do. Our actions are based on our expectations of other people’s behaviors and actions.
The opposite of descriptive norms are injunctive norms. The difference between injunctive and distinctive norms is that descriptive norms refer to what we feel others would do while injunctive norms refer to what we feel we are expected to do.
A descriptive norm example would be giving someone a compliment to make them feel better, giving at least an average-sized tip, or giving a girl flowers on a date. We’re not going to be overly shamed if we don’t do these things, but we feel others in our situation would do it so we have the sense that we should, too.
Descriptive norms are those that relate to what people do and can also be called normative expectations, as they describe “what is typical or normal” (Ciladini, 1990: 1015)
Below are simple scholarly definitions of descriptive norms:
“[Descriptive norms] refer to beliefs about what others do. Descriptive norms will drive a behavior or practice when a person engages in a particular behavior because they think that others in their community and social circle do the same.”(UNICEF, 2021:1)
“[Descriptive norms explain how] we act the way most people—or most people like us—act.”(Kearns & Lee, 2015, p. 539)
- Clapping at the theater: At the end of a theater play everyone stands up and start clapping, and immediately, others stand up and clap too. Some people may have liked the play a lot, while others may just be doing it as it is what it’s done at the
- Raising a toast: At a wedding, people grab a glass of champagne and rise it to toasts to the newlyweds, and immediately, everyone at the celebration follows as this is what is typically done in that situation.
- Dress codes and fashion: How people decide to dress, also known as dress code, is often influenced by what they know other people wear in similar occasions, or what they expect them to wear.
- Casual Fridays: Some companies apply a “dress down Friday” policy, which most, if not all, employees follow, even though not doing so would not imply any type of sanction.
- Greeting customs: Meeting and greeting, and how it is done in different countries, it is also a descriptive norm. From kissing on the cheeks, to shaking hands, patting on the back or giving a head nod, all are acceptable depending on where you are!
- Business meeting norms: Attending a business meeting requires also a certain amount of descriptive norms when it comes to showing certain behaviors: attentive listening, respecting turns and the use of formal language.
- Littering: Littering is another example of descriptive norms. If, for example, in a park people do not litter, those who there are less likely to leave trash behind.
- Protesting: Going to a demonstration also illustrates descriptive norms: marching, wearing placards or chanting are all behaviors and actions that are normal in that particular setting.
- Tipping at a restaurant: Adding a tip to a restaurant bill, in countries where this is not automatically added, is considered a descriptive norm. Why do people pay tips when no one has asked them to? Because they consider it the normal thing to do.
There is often confusion as to what really makes injunctive and descriptive norms different.
The confusion comes partly from thinking that what is common behavior (descriptive norms) is also what is morally right (injunctive norms):
“The two types of norms are often congruent, by which we shall mean that what is common to do is also what you ought to do” (Eriksson, 2015: 59)
So, one of the things that these types of norms have in common without a doubt is that they give information about which behavior or action is correct in a concrete setting or situation.
However, there are several key distinctions, outlined below.
1. Social Sanctions and Consequences
One important distinction between the two is that “descriptive norms typically do not involve social sanctions for noncompliance with the norm” (Lapinski, 2005:130).
Rather, because injunctive norms relate to what ought to be done and what is morally right, breaking those norms may be disapproved by others.
So, in principle, one of the things that makes them different is the consequences of breaking the norms. Breaching disjunctive norms receive a social sanction or is disapproved, and doing so with descriptive norms doesn’t.
However, some would argue that this doesn’t always apply, as there are examples in which both can incur a sanction.
For example, if we think about the formal meeting situation, people’s behaviors are guided by what they consider is normal and what they have learned others do in a similar situation. However, breaking the rules of a meeting by, for example, shouting at someone, would most likely be sanctioned.
Another aspect that makes them different is the motivation behind following the two different types of norms.
Following injunctive norms has certain benefits: getting social approval, or being spared punishment or a sanction. Breaking them has the opposite consequences (Bicchieri, 2006).
Following descriptive norms are not so much about the negative consequences that not following them may have.
Descriptive norms are followed because they presuppose an advantage for the individual: “by simply registering what most others are doing there and by imitating their actions, one can usually choose efficiently and well” (Cialdini, 1990: 1015)
Case Studies of Descriptive Norms
When people go to a demonstration, to protest about something they strongly feel about, there are certain actions and behaviors that take place which can be seen as part and parcel of descriptive norms.
In demonstrations, people are allowed to chant, loudly, because that is considered the normal way to have one’s voice heard in that setting. Another way to carry a message across in that setting is to placard protest with slogans.
Marching together, sitting down in peaceful protest, or stopping traffic are all typical actions at demonstrations that people do because that is what everyone else does in that context.
Dress codes, that is, norms (written or socially agreed) on how people should dress according to the occasion, the time of the day or the place where they are going, amongst others, can be considered a type of descriptive norms.
Further, dress codes relate to other aspects, such as age, education, gender, power, or collective behaviors, amongst others.
Another thing about dress codes is that, just like other descriptive norms, they vary between cultures, religious groups, or social classes.
So, what a person wears to a wedding depends, for instance, to where that wedding takes place. How formally an individual dresses to go to work will depend on the culture of the workplace.
Different countries have different ways to meet and greet, and so how an individual says hello, goodbye or “nice to meet you” will depend on descriptive norms.
For example, in some European countries kissing on the cheeks is considered normal when being introduced to someone, even in formal settings. In others, shaking hands, nodding or bowing, or simply saying “hello” is the done thing.
Knowing the right descriptive norms when it comes to meeting and greeting, is important when we are in a foreign country, if a person doesn’t want to be in a cultural mishap.
4. Attending a formal meeting
As we people reach adulthood and enter paid employment, particularly in what in sociology has come to know as “white collar jobs”, formal meetings are part of work culture.
These meetings embody many descriptive norms. One of these is the dress code, which usually involves formal wear (exemplified by worker’s smart attire at the top and casual at the bottom when doing a teleconference meeting!),
Another is how people seat, as a too relax posture may be interpreted as a lack of interest or attention or even disrespect.
Also, how and when one speaks: it’s important to listen, respect people’s turns, use an appropriate tone of voice and speak in a formal language.
Descriptive norms can be defined as those that are based on what is considered normal and typical behavior in a given social context or culture. Like other social norms, they vary and what is considered a descriptive norm in one place, will not be in another.
Descriptive norms are about what is, as opposed to injunctive norms which are about what ought to be.
Descriptive norms are followed as they give an advantage to individuals regarding that is the best behavior to adopt in a certain setting or situation.
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