The Psychology of "Seinfeld"
A show about nothing, or a show about (breaking) social norms?
Posted Jul 01, 2020
Good news, Seinfeld fans! Netflix recently announced that everyone’s favorite show about nothing will be available for streaming starting in 2021. Although the show famously claimed to be about nothing, it’s actually jam-packed with great examples of psychological concepts. In my teaching, I regularly use snippets from the show to illustrate our course material, and I’m excited that my students will finally get my jokes again! In anticipation of this glorious event, I will spend the next few posts sharing some of my favorite Seinfeldian moments. In this series, we’ll ask, “What’s the deal with the psychology of Seinfeld?”
Descriptive Social Norms
Seinfeld’s writers seemed to have an excellent knowledge of social norms, and the show as a whole is practically one big exploration of what happens when you break them. Social norms are our rules for how we should behave in a society. There are two main types—descriptive and prescriptive.
Descriptive social norms are simply what people normally do in a situation, group, or society. They are often so ingrained that we don’t realize they are “rules” at all until someone breaks them, and then it may feel intensely off-putting. The sneaky thing about these norms is that they’re not codified into formal rules or laws, and we while we can learn them through direct instruction (usually your mother telling you to stop doing something because you look like a weirdo), we often passively absorb them through watching others and reacting to others’ reactions to our behavior.
For example, have you ever been in a waiting area or theater with plenty of open seats, but despite that, a stranger comes and sits right next to you? It feels uncomfortable, right? In most places, this behavior violates a descriptive norm; typically we space ourselves out if we have the room. This is so normal to us that we usually don’t even think about it. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that (bonus! this phrase doubles as a Seinfeld reference and an important distinction between descriptive and prescriptive norms)—it’s just viewed as weird.
What’s more, as a society, we police our own norms. When someone violates a norm, we punish them socially by giving them the stink eye, embarrassing them, or excluding them. And it works pretty well—especially when the norm they’ve broken is a “don’t” norm, or a norm that governs something you should not do, as opposed to something you should do. This social policing can lead the violator to experience embarrassment, guilt, or shame.
Seinfeld has plenty of examples of people breaking descriptive norms. Let’s look at a few specific norms broken by the Seinfeld gang, perhaps the most notable of which is the personal space bubble.
The Close Talker
In S5, E18, “The Raincoats,” Elaine introduces her boyfriend, Aaron. Aaron is what Jerry calls a “close talker”; he stands way too close to others when having a conversation. Even worse, when his conversation partners lean back to increase the space between them, he moves in closer to fill it up again. In one scene, he gets closer and closer to Jerry with every word until they are almost nose-to-nose, a most uncomfortable moment that cannot be done justice in a written description!
One common and powerful descriptive social norm is the personal space bubble. There is a typical accepted radius around our bodies that we expect people to stay out of when they are near us, and when people cross that imaginary boundary, we feel quite uncomfortable. Most of us have experienced a close talker at some point and understand how it feels. But there are other norms the Seinfeld gang violated that we might not have realized were rules in the first place.
Mr. Pitt and the Snickers Bar
In S6, E3, "The Pledge Drive," we see another descriptive norm violation when Elaine sees her boss, Mr. Pitt, eating a Snickers bar with a knife and fork. She finds this so unusual that she struggles to focus on their conversation. We have many descriptive norms surrounding how to eat food, and one set of these norms concerns which foods we eat with utensils and which we don’t. It seems perfectly normal to eat ribs with your hands, and steak with a fork and knife, but if we really think about why, the distinction seems pretty arbitrary. Nonetheless, it is unusual to eat a candy bar with a knife and fork.
Oddly enough, after Elaine tells Jerry and George about this behavior, it becomes a trend, and something that was once a norm violation becomes a norm! This worked out well for Mr. Pitt, perhaps because he was a powerful person people wanted to model, but the rest of us likely would have been mocked rather than imitated.
The Guy on the Subway Really Loves Lucy
Another particularly cringe-worthy example of descriptive norm violation occurs in S5, E10, “The Cigar Store Indian,” when Elaine makes a new acquaintance on the subway. A stranger sitting across from Elaine spots her reading a TV guide, and he strikes up a very uncomfortable conversation with her in which he prattles on endlessly about the various shows featuring Lucille Ball, repeatedly ignores Elaine’s cues that she is not interested in talking, and eventually comes and sits right beside her in a bench only barely big enough for two. Similar to the close talker, the guy on the subway invaded Elaine's personal space.
However, he also violated a norm by striking up such a lengthy conversation with a stranger, especially after she signaled that she was uninterested. This is a norm that differs somewhat by region. Where I live, in the southern United States, it's not completely out of the ordinary to have spontaneous conversations with people you're standing next to in line or on public transportation, but in New York City, where Seinfeld is based, talking to strangers in this familiar way is not just unusual, it's often considered suspicious.
In response, Elaine presses herself against the side of the subway car, trying to get as far away from him as possible without seeming rude. In fact, her unwillingness to just move or end the conversation is probably in itself adherence to social norms—people in general, but especially women, are expected to be polite, even when they find themselves in uncomfortable circumstances.
Frank Costanza’s Lawyer Wears a Cape, Elaine Won’t Remove Her Coat, and Jerry’s Girlfriend Only Wears One Dress
There are many descriptive norms related to clothing, including what we wear, when we wear it, and how frequently we wear it, and we see a few examples in Seinfeld. In S6, E4, Jerry and Elaine see George’s father talking to a man in a cape. Out of earshot, they briefly discuss how weird it is to wear a cape, and ultimately decide to cross the street rather than have to interact with him. In S4, E13, “The Outing,” when Elaine refuses to remove her coat, Jerry eventually gets angry and attempts to wrestle it off of her.
And in S7, E13, “The Seven,” Jerry’s girlfriend, Christie, wears the same dress across multiple occasions. In fact, he never sees her in anything but the one dress. At Monk’s Café, Jerry and George are baffled, saying that once worn, the dress should only appear again at the end of the next wash cycle and shouldn’t be worn again right away. They wonder if perhaps she has a closet full of the same outfit, like Superman—that could be the only reasonable explanation for wearing a dress again so soon.
Is it wrong to wear a cape or a coat or the same dress over and over? Of course not. But it is odd, and it bothers us when we see people behaving outside the norm.
In all of these cases, the characters who have broken descriptive norms were socially punished in some way. Everyone avoided Aaron, the close talker. People talked about Mr. Pitt behind his back, even if they ended up adopting his habits later on. Elaine gave the guy on the subway the cold shoulder and tried her best to get away from him while remaining polite. Elaine and Jerry crossed the street to avoid the man in the cape. Jerry even became angry with Elaine for refusing to remove her coat! Although these are not extreme consequences for breaking norms, these types of attempts by others to control our behavior tend to be very effective.
Descriptive norms can be very strong influences on our behavior, but in the next post, we’ll take a look at another type of norm that has even stronger consequences when broken. Of course, the Seinfeld gang breaks plenty of those, too.