It is well known that individuals tend to copy behaviours that are common among other people—a phenomenon known as the descriptive norm effect1,2,3. This effect has been successfully used to encourage a range of real-world prosocial decisions4,5,6,7, such as increasing organ donor registrations8. However, it is still unclear why it occurs. Here, we show that people conform to social norms, even when they understand that the norms in question are arbitrary and do not reflect the actual preferences of other people. These results hold across multiple contexts and when controlling for confounds such as anchoring or mere-exposure effects. Moreover, we demonstrate that the degree to which participants conform to an arbitrary norm is determined by the degree to which they self-identify with the group that exhibits the norm. Two prominent explanations of norm adherence—the informational and social sanction accounts2,9,10,11—cannot explain these results, suggesting that these theories need to be supplemented by an additional mechanism that takes into account self-identity.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The response data for all pilot experiments and experiments in this paper are available in the following OSF repository: https://osf.io/n6uz5/?view_only=7dc67fcc0c1f4fdea8fe1dfe5d492480.
Burger, J. M. et al. Nutritious or delicious? The effect of descriptive norm information on food choice. J. Soc. Clin. Psychol. 29, 228–242 (2010).
Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R. & Kallgren, C. A. A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 58, 1015–1026 (1990).
Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J. & Griskevicius, V. Normative social influence is underdetected. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 34, 913–923 (2008).
Hallsworth, M. et al. Stating appointment costs in SMS reminders reduces missed hospital appointments: findings from two randomised controlled trials. PLoS ONE 10, 1–14 (2015).
Wenzel, M. Misperceptions of social norms about tax compliance: from theory to intervention. J. Econ. Psychol. 26, 862–883 (2005).
Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B. & Griskevicius, V. A room with a viewpoint: using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. J. Consum. Res. 35, 472–482 (2008).
Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J. & Griskevicius, V. The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychol. Sci. 18, 429–434 (2007).
Applying Behavioural Insights to Organ Donation: Preliminary Results From a Randomised Controlled Trial (Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team, NHS Blood and Transplant, Department of Health, Government Digital Service & Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, 2013).
Ajzen, I. & Fishbein, M. Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behaviour (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1980).
Bendor, J. & Swistak, P. The evolution of norms. Am. J. Sociol. 106, 1493–1545 (2001).
Deutsch, M. & Gerard, H. B. A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol. 51, 629–636 (1955).
Choi, J. J., Laibson, D., Madrian, B. C. & Metrick, A. in Analyses in the Economics of Aging (ed. Wise, D. A.) 59–78 (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005).
Terry, D. J. & Hogg, M. A. Group norms and the attitude–behavior relationship: a role for group identification. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 22, 776–793 (1996).
Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D. & Wetherell, M. S. Rediscovering The Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987).
Zajonc, R. B. Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 9, 1–27 (1968).
Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Science 185, 1124–1131 (1974).
Englich, B. & Mussweiler, T. Sentencing under uncertainty: anchoring effects in the courtroom. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 31, 1535–1551 (2001).
Englich, B., Mussweiler, T. & Strack, F. Playing dice with criminal sentences: the influence of irrelevant anchors on experts’ judicial decision making. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 32, 188–200 (2006).
Neighbors, C. et al. Group identification as a moderator of the relationship between perceived social norms and alcohol consumption. Psychol. Addict. Behav. 24, 522–528 (2010).
Smith, J. R. & Terry, D. J. Attitude–behaviour consistency: the role of group norms, attitude accessibility, and mode of behavioural decision-making. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 33, 591–608 (2003).
Rimal, R. N. Modeling the relationship between descriptive norms and behaviors: a test and extension of the theory of normative social behavior (TNSB). Health Commun. 23, 103–116 (2008).
Platow, M. J. et al. “It’s not funny if they’re laughing”: self-categorization, social influence, and responses to canned laughter. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 41, 542–550 (2005).
Cruwys, T. et al. Modeling of food intake is moderated by salient psychological group membership. Appetite 58, 754–757 (2012).
Behrend, T. S., Sharek, D. J., Meade, A. W. & Wiebe, E. N. The viability of crowdsourcing for survey research. Behav. Res. Methods 43, 800–813 (2011).
Huff, C. & Tingley, D. “Who are these people?” Evaluating the demographic characteristics and political preferences of MTurk survey respondents. Res. Polit. 2, 1–12 (2015).
Hauser, D. J. & Schwarz, N. Attentive turkers: MTurk participants perform better on online attention checks than do subject pool participants. Behav. Res. Methods 48, 400–407 (2016).
Horton, J. J., Rand, D. G. & Zeckhauser, R. J. The online laboratory: conducting experiments in a real labor market. Exp. Econ. 14, 399–425 (2011).
Huh, Y. E., Vosgerau, J. & Morewedge, C. K. Social defaults: observed choices become choice defaults. J. Consum. Res. 41, 746–760 (2014).
Paolacci, G., Chandler, J. & Ipeirotis, P. G. Running experiments on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Judgem. Decis. Mak. 5, 411–419 (2010).
Buhrmester, M., Kwang, T. & Gosling, S. D. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: a new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 6, 3–5 (2011).
Kittur, A., Chi, E. H. & Suh, B. Crowdsourcing user studies with Mechanical Turk. In Proc. SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 453–456 (Association for Computing Machinery, 2008).
Gosling, S. D., Rentfrow, P. J. & Swann, W. B. A very brief measure of the big-five personality domains. J. Res. Pers. 37, 504–528 (2003).
Postmes, T., Haslam, S. A. & Jans, L. A single‐item measure of social identification: reliability, validity, and utility. Br. J. Soc. Psychol. 52, 597–617 (2013).
This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Pryor, C., Perfors, A. & Howe, P.D.L. Even arbitrary norms influence moral decision-making. Nat Hum Behav 3, 57–62 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0489-y
Rule Following Mitigates Collaborative Cheating and Facilitates the Spreading of Honesty Within Groups
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2021)
Resource and Energy Economics (2021)
The Dark Side of Morality – Neural Mechanisms Underpinning Moral Convictions and Support for Violence
AJOB Neuroscience (2020)
Community curation in PomBase: enabling fission yeast experts to provide detailed, standardized, sharable annotation from research publications
Society & Natural Resources (2020)