Tim Studler/Unsplash
Source: Tim Studler/Unsplash

I’m a social psychologist and I study one of the most powerful and mysterious forces in the universe: social norms. Social norms are the understood, yet often unwritten, rules for accepted behavior, such as wash your hands after using the restroom, drive faster than the speed limit in the left lane, and don’t double dip your chips.

Social norms have a powerful impact on our behavior, even when we’re not consciously aware of them. They affect what we wear, what we eat, and how we speak (just saying’). They also influence how satisfying our romantic relationships are, how we relate to our children, and which political candidates we support.

As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as individualists who march to the beat of our own drum. And it’s true that we are an individualistic culture. But it’s also true that, more often than not, we are influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of other people. Why is this the case? We are social animals who have a fundamental need to connect with others. Nearly everyone wants to be liked and accepted by others (don’t you?). This need for acceptance leads us to conform to the norms of our groups and the larger society. Those who don’t conform to these social norms risk negative social consequences such as ridicule and rejection.

Conformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good when people conform to the unwritten rule that diners should tip their servers 15-20% of the bill. Or the rule that you should help people in distress. Other times, though, conformity can be harmful to our health and happiness. Here are three examples.

1.Stop asking, “How are you?”

Sometimes, people ask “How are you?” because they really want to know how you’re doing. Other times, people ask because it has become a normative greeting in our society. “Hi, how are you?” is a lengthier alternative to “Hi.” The standard response is usually mumbled as a single word: goodhowareyou? or finehowareyou? This exchange happens even when people are moving in opposite directions, with no possibility of having an actual conversation. We're conditioning ourselves to provide superficial answers when people ask how we're doing. This isn't good for us.   

Personally, I refuse to answer the question “How are you?” unless someone maintains eye contact with me after asking.  If they don’t seem to care about or have time for the answer, I’ll ignore the question and just say, “Hi.” 

If you’re one of the many people who asks this question, reserve it for times when you really want to know the answer. And if you're asked by someone who seems to care, give an honest answer. 

2. Stop glorifying busyness.

If you ask people how they’re doing and you wait for a genuine response, you’ll often hear, “I’m so busy.” Busyness has become a measure of success in our society. Many people like to humblebrag about how busy they are. They brag about getting only 3 hours of sleep, working twelve hours straight, or going all year without a vacation. One of my colleagues recently told me she had such a busy workday that she forgot to eat (yeah… that never happens to me!). Few people brag about getting 9-10 rejuvenating hours of sleep or leaving work early to get a massage. Even our children are busy; their schedules are packed with school commitments and extracurricular activities.

In his book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Harold Kushner writes that we keep busy to “fill the gnawing emptiness in our soul.” While that may be true, another possibility is that we fill our calendars because it’s the norm. Everyone else seems to be doing it so we think it’s the “normal” thing to do. We don’t stop to question whether this obsession with busyness is good for us. Maybe we should.

3. Stop driving distracted.

Think about the last time you drove a car. Did you talk on your phone during that trip? Did you look down when the heard the ping of a new message?  If you did, you’re in good company.  The majority of us are distracted by our phones when we’re behind the wheel. Distracted driving has become the norm; it’s an epidemic that’s claiming thousands of lives every year. Government agencies and technology companies are hard at work to fight this epidemic, but there’s something we can do too – we can change the social norm of distracted driving.

Social psychologists have found that one of the best ways to change a normative behavior is to make it socially disapproved. Consider smoking. Smoking was “en vogue” for several decades and then, slowly over time, it became socially disapproved. A recent study found that fear of social disapproval, not fear of health consequences, motivates current smokers to quit.

We need to treat distracted drivers like smokers. We need to start expressing our disapproval of their behavior. If you’re riding with a friend who is searching for a song, ask if you can help. If your Uber driver can’t take his eyes off of his navigation device, ask “Should we pull over so you can figure out the best route?”

Together, we can change the social norms that threaten our happiness and health. Every time we follow or break the rules of expected behavior, we’re changing our social world.

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