Social Norms That Inhibit Change

Social norms can hinder change not because people don’t want to change, but because they mistake “what other people will say”.

By Paramita Mohamad
December 07, 2021
Social norms can be seen as behavioral guidelines about what is allowed (proper) to be done, and what is not (inappropriate) to be done. However, unlike other “rules” such as law, social norms work through the mechanism of “what will people say later?”. More specifically, according to Bicchieri (2015), social norms are rules of behavior that are followed by people in a community because they believe that other people also follow them and at the same time believe that these rules must be followed.
Social norms have a big influence in generating and maintaining collective behavior (behavior that is done by many people in a community, for example the behavior of where and how people throw garbage, when to get married, what to do on weekends, and so on). However, not all collective behavior is caused by social norms. See this picture:
According to Bicchieri, social norms have a “coercive” power in regulating our daily behavior because the sanctions that can be given are social sanctions. These social sanctions lead to unpleasant emotions, such as shame, pressure, or isolation. Social sanctions arise, first because a person believes not only other people do the same, but mainly because other people expect them to follow the norm.

A simple case example of how social norms work can be seen when we give environmental contributions. We will feel embarrassed if we contribute a smaller amount, because in addition to the average neighbors contributing a certain amount, we are afraid that they will have a bad view of us, such as being stingy. Another example is when we are sharing food with a group of friends, when there is only one piece of food left, people will be reluctant to take the last piece, for fear of being considered greedy.

Social norms can hinder change
The existence of social sanctions is seen as bad by the public (usually referred to as “neighbors” or “people”) is what causes social norms to hinder change. One example of a case in Indonesia is the case of child marriage. Collective behavior change to reduce the incidence of child marriage is very difficult to encourage as long as social norms that stipulate that it is better for children to be married off than they commit adultery. This social norm creates social pressure that causes parents who, even though they already know privately about the risks of child marriage, are forced to marry off their children because they do not want to be viewed badly by their social environment, as parents who allow their children to commit adultery.

Unfortunately, most interventions in preventing child marriage seek only to change one’s personal opinion about the risks of child marriage or the benefits of postponing marriage, without attempting to modify two main components of social norms: the opinion that most villagers would choose to marry off their children under age, and that villagers expect all parents to marry off their children as soon as possible.

Misconceptions of Social Norms
Strong social pressure due to social norms can discourage people from expressing their personal views regarding prevailing social norms. Because of this, people can then misjudge other people’s views on prevailing social norms.

Katz and Allport (1931) labeled this phenomenon as pluralistic ignorance. Pluralistic ignorance explains that when a person knows that his attitude and behavior is judged by others, he becomes reluctant to reveal his personal views to others for fear of being judged. The more people who act this way, the more they will believe that their personal views are only shared by themselves and few others share those views. As a result, people who disagree with a social norm believe that most other people will agree with that rule. Finally, even if they do not agree, they will still follow the prevailing social norms. This is what is meant by a misunderstanding of social norms.

Bicchieri, Christina and Penn Social Norms Training and Consulting Group. Why People Do What They Do?: A Social Norms Manual for Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Innocenti Toolkit Guide from the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

Bursztyn, Leonardo, Alessandra L. González, and David Yanagizawa-Drott. Misperceived Social Norms: Women Working Outside the Home in Saudi Arabia. Working Paper, March 2020. Forthcoming AER

Goldstein, Markus, et al. “Moving the needle on social norms”. World Bank Blogs, The World Bank Group, 30 May 2019,

Hollingworth, Crawford, et al. “Busting Misbeliefs to Improve Women’s Well-being”. Behavioral Scientist, 3 September 2019, well-being/

Yanagizawa-Drott, David. “Trapped by misperceptions: Women, work, and social norms in Saudi Arabia”. Economics for Society, UBS Foundation of Economics in Society, No.1 2019, https://www
Paramita Mohamad
Written by
CEO and Principal Consultant of Communication for Change. We work with those who want to make Indonesia suck less, by helping them get buy-in and make changes.

Related Articles