Social norms

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Discuss about social norms which we might “violate”.

Solomon Asch demonstrated that most people will yield to a majority opinion even when it conflicts with their own. We believe we are different, but that’s usually no the case. We underestimate the power of social forces.

Stanley Milgram described a class project. He asked his students to violate a simple social constraint – to get on a subway or city bus and ask another passenger for his or her seat. Students who tried found the task to be nearly impossible. One graduate student reported “I just couldn’t go on. It was one of the most difficult things I ever did in my life”.

Unconvinced, Milgram tried himself. He approached a seated passenger but the words, he said, “seemed lodged in my trachea and would simply not emerge. I stood there frozen, then retreated, the mission unfulfilled.” After several unsuccessful attempts he final choked out the request “Excuse me sir, may I have your seat?” “Amazingly” Milgram reported “ the man immediately stood up and gave me his seat!” But the experience wasn’t over. In taking the man’s seat, Milgram observed, “I was overwhelmed by the need to behave in a way that would justify my request. My head sank between my knees… I actually felt as if I was going to perish.” Not until he left the train did his tension dissipate.

Milgram concluded that this simple experiment demonstrated several social principles. First, enormous inhibitory anxiety ordinarily prevents us from breaking social norms. Second, we have a powerful need to justify our actions after violating a norm. Third, the power of immediate circumstances on our feelings and behaviour is immense.

Discuss how difficult it is to break social norms. Do any students think they could do this without feeling the need to justify their actions? Does this account for the popularity of Chaser (Chaser’s war on everything – TV show) – because they break social norms in a way we’d like to be able to do, and they get away with it?