In sociology and psychology, injunctive norms are considered the social norms that people feel they have to follow based on what they think other people expect of them. They are norms that are sustained due to perceived social approval or disapproval in a given situation or context.
The opposite of injunctive norms is descriptive norms. Descriptive norms are norms that we believe other people do, so we do them as well.
The difference between injunctive and distinctive norms is that injunctive norms refer to what we feel we are expected to do while descriptive norms refer to what we feel others would do.
Social norms, on top of being unwritten and mainly socially learned, guide human behavior in two ways. People make decisions on based on:
- Subjunctive norms: what they believe others do (what is), or,
- Injunctive norms: what others expect them to do (what ought to be).
Injunctive norms can also be called perspective norms, as they refer to people’s perception of others actions and opinions.
Injunctive norms can be defined as:
“…people’s beliefs about what others approve of or expect them to do. Injunctive norms will influence behavior when people engage in a practice because they believe that those who matter to them expect them to do so, will reward them socially if they do, and sanction them if they do not”(Unicef, 2021:1).
In short, when people’s behaviors and actions are guided by which behaviors they believe are typically approved or disapproved, then injunctive norms are at play.
Added to this, injunctive norms are linked to outcome expectancies, that is, people’s beliefs about the consequences, whether positive in the form of rewards, or negative in the form of sanctions, that their behavior will have.
- Whispering in a library: When people walk into a library they immediately lower their voices and whisper. Why? Because they know that is what they are supposed to do in a library.
- Phones in restaurants: Typically, on a public place, like a train or a restaurant, when people talk on the phone they tend to keep their voice down as to not bother others.
- Silence in a theater: Switching off one’s phone at a conference or a theater is an example of an injunctive norm. Can you imagine people’s look of disapproval as the phone rings?
- Walking on the escalator: On the escalator of a shopping mall or the subway, there are countries in which the right hand side is for people staying still, and the left for those who decide to walk up the stairs. It is an unwritten injunctive norm.
- Social pressure to get married: A couple who are perfectly happy living together but decide to get married because that is what their families expect of them are following injunctive norms.
- Ear piercings: In some countries, piercing a baby girl’s ears at birth is a custom that, when not performed, can be frowned upon in certain families or communities.
- Childbearing: In some communities, people are expected to have children straight after marriage. Some couples, who may otherwise wait, may have children earlier than they would want only to fulfill that norm.
- When to drink: The time of day when is acceptable to drink adult beverages is also an injunctive norm. Going for a drink in the afternoon with a colleague is socially acceptable, but doing so in the morning not so.
- What age to have children: Having children at a very young age is socially approved amongst some social groups, while others really condone it. A young woman’s decision to go through with a pregnancy may be based on this injunctive norm.
- Where to smoke: Smoking at the school gate, while may be permitted, it’s often frowned upon in many places. Those who smoke there are breaking an injunctive norm, for which they may receive stares.
Detailed Case Studies
Piercing a baby girl’s ears straight after birth is common in some countries and cultures. So, if a couple choose to pierce their baby’s ears because of what they consider their family is correct, then they are following an injunctive norm.
However, this is a practice that shows how disjunctive norms are bound to time and place. There are now more people questioning if it is right to modify a baby’s body without her consent.
More extreme examples of this are footbinding or FGM, commonplace in some cultures and now severely condoned in others (Gavrilets, 2020).
Those who are library users know an unwritten norm very well: going into a library means lowering one’s voice and start whispering.
Also, phones, or other noisy electronic devices, are not allowed. Can you imagine the stares a person would get for talking on the phone at a library?
It can then be said that people have learned what ought to be done at the library, and so they know they have to follow that norm or else not only they will be subject of angry looks, they may even be kicked out!
In western countries, generally, the average age of mothers at childbirth has been on the rise for several decades. In many of these countries, the average age stands at 30.
It is not then surprising that in those countries, teenage pregnancy is not well perceived. However, in other countries, conceiving at a young age is not sanctioned by families or close friends.
This is thus an example of injunctive norms: young women’s view on becoming a parent at their age is influenced by what they perceive is normal among their family and friends.
While in Western countries, cohabitation (that is, is living together without being married) is socially acceptable, and on the rise, there are other cultures and religions in which this is not the case.
In Western countries, one of the reasons why people still get married is because of family pressures. Even though these couples could carry on living together, they tie the knot because they ought to.
In those countries in which cohabitation is frowned upon, the pressure to get married is even stronger. Couples who want to share a marital bed have to first get married, or else it’s considered they are acting in an immoral way.
Differences between Injunctive Norms and Descriptive Norms
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)
Injunctive norms refer to people’s perceptions of what “ought to be”, meaning what hast to be done, and is morally right, in a certain situation. This is partly guided by the perception of what is approved or disapproved by others.
Injunctive norms are about what ought to be as opposed to descriptive norms which are about what is.
Also, injunctive norms are guided by outcome expectancies in the form of rewards and sanctions.
Just like social norms generally, injunctive norms are not universal and fixed. What this means is that what is an injunctive norm will apply in one country or culture and not in another.
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