Normative influence in social psychology refers to the pressure to conform to social norms or expectations to gain acceptance and approval from others.
This concept involves individuals adjusting their behavior to align with a group’s norms, often to avoid disapproval or rejection. It is a key form of informal social control in societies (McDonald & Crandall, 2015).
A normative influence example is when a child wears a certain style of clothing to fit in with their classmates, even though they may not personally like it, but because they want to be accepted by their peers.
Normative Social Influence Definition
Normative social influence, as defined by Hoyer et al. (2017), is:
“….social pressure designed to encourage conformity to the expectations of others.”
Myers, Abell, & Sani (2020) further explain that:
“….normative influence occurs when we conform to the expectations of others. We do what we ‘ought’ to do.”
Lastly, Deutsch & Gerard (1955), as quoted by Davey (2011), state that normative influence is:
“….influence to conform to the positive expectations of another.”
Drawing from these definitions, normative influence in social psychology can be understood as the pressure individuals experience to conform to societal or group norms, driven by the desire to meet others’ expectations and gain their approval (note: this is similar to, but different to, the concept of subjective norms in the theory of planned behavior).
This type of influence shapes behavior by encouraging individuals to act in ways that align with what is deemed acceptable by their social environment, ultimately promoting harmony and cohesion within the group.
Normative Social Influence Examples
- Wearing Formal Attire to a Wedding: Guests wear formal attire to weddings because it’s the expected dress code, and they want to show respect for the occasion and the couple getting married.
- Laughing at a Joke: People might laugh at a joke they don’t find funny because everyone else is laughing, and they want to fit in with the group and not be seen as unamused or disconnected.
- Recycling in a Community: Individuals recycle because their community values environmental sustainability, and they want to conform to the shared expectations and be perceived as environmentally responsible (Collado, Staats & Sancho, 2019).
- Following Traffic Rules: Drivers adhere to traffic rules and posted speed limits to meet societal expectations, avoiding the disapproval of other drivers and potential legal consequences.
- Standing for the National Anthem: People stand for the national anthem at sporting events because everyone else is doing it, and they want to show respect and solidarity with their fellow citizens.
- Eating with Utensils: Individuals use utensils when eating in public, even if they prefer eating with their hands, to conform to the dining etiquette expected in many cultures and avoid social disapproval.
- Adopting Slang or Colloquial Language: People might adopt slang or colloquial language in conversation with a particular group to fit in with the group’s communication style and be more accepted by its members.
- Participating in Holiday Traditions: Individuals partake in holiday traditions, such as exchanging gifts or preparing specific meals, because they want to adhere to cultural norms and share a sense of unity with their family or community.
- Dressing in Trendy Clothing: People may wear trendy clothes they don’t necessarily like because they want to be perceived as fashionable and fit in with the popular crowd.
- Maintaining Social Media Presence: Individuals might actively maintain a social media presence, posting content that reflects a certain image, in order to fit in with the expectations of their online peers and gain social approval.
- Tipping in Restaurants: People tip servers in restaurants because it’s an established social norm, and they want to show appreciation for the service and avoid being perceived as stingy or rude.
- Attending Social Gatherings: Individuals might attend social gatherings they’re not particularly interested in because they want to conform to the expectations of their friends or colleagues and maintain their social standing within the group.
- Suppressing Yawns in Public: People suppress yawns in public settings to adhere to the social norm of not displaying signs of boredom or tiredness, preventing others from perceiving them as disinterested or impolite.
- Holding the Door for Others: People hold doors for others, even when in a hurry, because it’s considered polite and respectful, and they want to avoid the disapproval of others for appearing inconsiderate.
- Using Formal Titles and Address: Individuals might address their superiors or elders using formal titles and respectful language to conform to social norms and show respect, even if they feel more comfortable with informal communication.
Origins of the Concept in Social Psychology
The term ‘normative influence’ emerges from research into social conformity within social psychology and, to a lesser extent, sociology.
The concept was developed in the mid-20th century by the following notable social psychologists: Muzafer Sherif, Solomon Asch, and Harold Kelley.
The term “normative influence” was coined by Morton Deutsch and Harold B. Gerard in their 1955 paper A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. However, they cite Muzafer Sherif as a key influence on their work.
Sherif’s (1935) autokinetic effect experiments were seminal in demonstrating how individuals are gently coerced into conforming to group norms through the soft influence of the group.
Sherif emphasized that the more ambiguous the situation, the more likely it was that a person would turn to the opinions and judgments of others to form their own beliefs.
One negative consequence of offloading your moral thinking to groups is deindividuation, which leads to uncritical cult-like thinking (see my full article on this phenomenon: deindividuation).
Following Sherif, Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955) conducted a series of experiments on conformity, wherein they highlighted the role of normative influence in decision making, which underpinned what’s now known as social influence theory.
They aruge that many people even conform to the group norm even when they know it’s obviously incorrect.
Based on this research, they categorized two key ways people were influenced; differentiated normative influence and informational influence:
- Normative social influence stems from the desire to be included inside the ‘in group’ of a society or culture. It’s based on the innate desire to be liked and accepted.
- Informational social influence is based on being influenced by other peoples’ information rather than their judgments. People who rely on informational influence listen to others in their social groups, but they do it because they believe that others possess valuable information that can help in their own decision-making.
Normative vs Informational Influence
|Criteria||Normative Influence||Informational Influence|
|Definition||Involves conforming to group norms and expectations with the hope of being liked and accepted, or to avoid disapproval.||Involves conforming to group norms and expectations based on information that leads you to think they are accurate or trustworthy.|
|Motivation||Desire for social approval and acceptance.||Desire for accuracy and rationality.|
|Primary focus||Fitting into the in-group and achieving social status.||Seeking the truth and best outcomes.|
|Impact on behavior||Behavior can change quickly to fit into the norms of the group you are in; beliefs and attitudes are often temporary or situational.||Behavior is more stable across contexts but may change if new information justifies it.|
|Examples||Dressing similarly to friends, using slang or expressions popular within a social group, or engaging in certain behaviors to be accepted (e.g. submitting to hazing within fraternities).||Seeking advice from experts or wise members of the group, following instructions in an emergency situation, or adopting new practices based on evidence.|
|Potential outcomes||Strengthened group cohesion, conformity, potentially negative behaviors or decisions due to peer pressure.||Improved decision-making, rationality, lifelong learning, and the adoption of new, useful behaviors based on emergent information.|
|Potential downsides||May lead to groupthink, stifling individuality or creativity, and failure to use critical thinking.||May lead to too much trust in authority and authoritative institutions, requires strong critical thinking and media literacy skills.|
Pros and Cons of Normative Social Influence
|Pros of Normative Social Influence||Cons of Normative Social Influence|
|Tends to foster social harmony and group cohesion: A shared culture is created and celebrated.||Can lead to conformity and suppression of individuality: It can harm people who feel they don’t fit into the group expectations.|
|Encourages adherence to social norms: this can decrease incidences of deviant behavior.||May result in unhealthy or harmful behaviors: Entire societies can participate in groupthink behavior that is objectively harmful.|
|Facilitates cooperation and collaboration: People are encouraged to work together and be a part of the group.||Inhibits social change: people who stand out from the crowd are excluded from the in-group, so social and cultural innovation is stifled.|
|Promotes a sense of belonging and social identity: By submitting to the group norms, you can develop a strong sense of inclusion.|
|Allows for smoother social interactions: There is less conflict when groups collectively experience normative social influence.|
Normative social influence is a powerful driver of cultural identity. It helps people to come together and adhere to a strong, shared, protected cultural group. We all experience it through socialization and informal social sanctions that show us how to behave in ways that generate optimal social capital within our societies. However, it can also lead to lack of critical thinking and group mediocrity, as societies require individuals with new and innocative ideas to achieve social progress.
Collado, S., Staats, H., & Sancho, P. (2019). Normative influences on adolescents’ self-reported pro-environmental behaviors: The role of parents and friends. Environment and Behavior, 51(3), 288-314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916517744591
Davey, G. C. (Ed.). (2011). Applied psychology. John Wiley & Sons.
Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The journal of abnormal and social psychology, 51(3), 629. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/h0046408
Einhorn, L. (2020). Normative social influence on meat consumption. MPIfG Discussion Paper, 20(1)
Hoyer, W., MacInnis, D., Pieters, R., Chan, E., & Northey, G. (2018) Consumer Behaviour: Asia-Pacific Edition. Sydney: Cengage Learning.
McDonald, R. I., & Crandall, C. S. (2015). Social norms and social influence. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 147-151. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.04.006
Myers, D., Abell, J., & Sani, F. (2020). Social Psychology 3e. New York: McGraw Hill.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]