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Norms Affect What You Can Think of Doing

It's hard to even think of things that aren't socially acceptable to do.

Key points

  • Social norms are conventions about what actions are acceptable in different situations.
  • Norms affect people's sense of what is possible and impossible to do.
  • Norms may be a powerful way of helping people to control temptations.
cyano66 / iStock image / licensed to Art Markman
Source: cyano66 / iStock image / licensed to Art Markman

There are lots of behaviors that society suggests are appropriate in some circumstances, but not others. You can take a nap on the couch in your home, but you wouldn’t curl up for a nap on a sofa in the lobby of a hotel. You can eat a dessert that is on your plate at a restaurant, but not a dessert on a plate at the table next to yours. These socially determined appropriate behaviors are called norms. Most people are adept at internalizing these norms and acting appropriately in different situations.

How do these norms work? One possibility is that you learn which behaviors are appropriate and then you avoid the ones that are not allowed. A second possibility is that you don’t even think about doing behaviors that are not socially appropriate.

While both of these are likely to happen sometimes, a 2023 paper by David Kalkstein, Cayce Hook, Bridgette Hard, and Gregory Walton in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that these norms often affect what actions people think about at all.

One study used two groups of participants. One group rated how appropriate it would be to perform particular actions in particular situations (where the actions were selected to be more appropriate in some of the situations than in others). For example, it is more appropriate to read a magazine because you are bored if you are sitting on a bus than if you are in a job interview. A second group rated the likelihood that a particular behavior would come to mind if you were in a specific motivational state in a situation. For example, “If you were bored while in a job interview, would it come to mind to read a magazine?” Even though different groups of people made these ratings, they were very highly correlated suggesting that inappropriate behaviors not only were things people wouldn’t do, but they wouldn’t even come to mind to do them.

A second set of studies asked people to judge quickly or with some reflection whether an action was impossible to do in a situation. In several of the studies, the instructions were quite clear that the question was whether the action was physically impossible and not socially impossible. For the actions that would violate a social norm, people making speeded judgments said the action was physically impossible 20% of the time and they even said it was impossible about 10% of the time when given a chance to reflect on it.

One reason why this possibility is interesting is because it suggests an intriguing way to help people who are struggling with self-control. Lots of research suggests that it can be hard to resist a temptation when you are motivated to avoid an action but have to stop yourself from doing it. If the action never comes to mind, though, then you don’t have to use willpower, because you aren’t experiencing a conflict.

Two studies explored whether this strategy for self-control would be successful. In one study, participants who wanted to control their diet to avoid overeating were asked about how much temptation they would experience in different situations. For example, the situation might be about taking donuts at a sporting event for a children’s team when there are plenty of snacks for both the children and adults present (which violates no norms) versus taking donuts at a sporting event for a children’s team when there were only exactly enough donuts for each child to have one (which would strongly violate a norm). Participants rated that they would experience much less conflict when the behavior would violate a norm than when it would not.

In a final study, the instructor of a large lecture class set a social norm not to use electronic devices in class at the start of the semester. Compared to a semester in which that norm was not set, students rated themselves as having a much lower temptation to multitask in class by using electronic devices to do things that were not class-related. They also self-reported much less multitasking in class suggesting that this social norm helped students resist this temptation.

Overall, these studies suggest that an important way that social norms have their impact is by influencing which actions come to mind in different situations. That way, you do not have to select from among a nearly infinite set of potential actions in different contexts. Instead, you only think about actions that make sense in that situation.

It also provides a potentially powerful way to change your behavior. If there is a temptation you are trying to overcome, work to develop a situation in which it is inappropriate to perform that action in the situations in which you have done it in the past. For example, over the last 25 years, it has become socially inappropriate for people to smoke in many indoor situations like restaurants and offices. That has substantially reduced the number of situations in which smokers who want to quit will be tempted to have a cigarette.


Kalkstein, D. A., Hook, C. J., Hard, B. M., & Walton, G. M. (2023). Social norms govern what behaviors come to mind—And what do not. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 124(6), 1203–1229.

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