Because Everyone Does So....

Why does one wear black for funerals? There are other cultures where one wears only white for this ritual. Have you thought about what stops one from dressing differently? Well let Jafar Baig explain it to you!

We are social animals. And like other animals, we live in groups. We are endowed with emotions and dispositions that enable us to do so. Our actions have consequences for us and for those around us. To enable living in such an environment, we follow and abide by some unwritten rules or normative principles that have been established in and by this environment, which is often just the community. These can be referred to as norms.

Many studies have shown that individual behaviour in many cases is influenced not by what one likes or thinks she should do but by what she thinks others approve of. Social expectations are expectations we have about what other people in our network do and believe in. Keeping up with the Joneses sets beliefs, but also expectations. Going one level further and adding an ‘ought to’ characteristic to social expectations gives us normative expectations. These are our beliefs about what other people think we ought to do in a situation and these beliefs shape the norms we follow in a social setting (Bicchieri, 2006).

Norms involve these normative principles. They can be beneficial to society and its functioning. Making sure to throw trash in a bin on a beach or patiently waiting in line to get out of an airplane benefits both the individual and the society. On the other hand, there are also some normative principles that are in no way beneficial, like the need to practice female genital mutilation of young girls, which is dangerous to their health and wellbeing. In the case of boys or men, there is some kind of societal sanction against men expressing vulnerability. This norm promotes toxic masculinity and has been linked to increased suicide rates (Payne et al, 2008).

Apart from norms with such serious tangible consequences, we also have norms that are a part of our everyday lives. They may be just things that we do without giving much thought, but these non-conscious behaviour are almost omnipresent in our environment. In most cases, participating individuals are not aware of the broader social function that a norm serves. Holding the door for the person behind you or saying thank you to the taxi driver are very ‘normal’ things to do in some societies like in the UK. But, the same things may not be observed in other societies. In India, the cab or rickshaw driver is very likely to be taken aback if he is thanked for his service. Therefore, what is very normal thing to do for you, may not be so for someone else depending on their reference network.

What facilitates and keeps norms alive is the interconnected nature of our societies. The density and design of networks, i.e. ways in which people are connected in a given society, plays an important role in how norms get embedded in a society. But, not all commonly observed behaviour is a norm. Christina Bichchieri points out a useful difference between a collective behaviour and a norm. A collective behaviour may just be a shared custom, a behaviour driven by the need of an individual that is common for everyone and not from any kind of expectations. The actions in this case are not interdependent in nature. For example, holding out an umbrella in rain is not dependent on whether others do so. It is just a behaviour that everyone engages in when it rains.

Evolutionarily, when one was uncertain about what to do or where to find next meal, following the norm (given exposure) of sharing the risk most likely saved the day for our ancestors and eventually the tribe. Further, when such strategies work out for a group of people, they are reinforced by group members and a rule of thumb develops over time. In the complex ways that societies have developed, it may well have become a rule of thumb to just follow a norm. It is a thing of beauty that we have such an implicit grasp of this complex idea of norm and know what it requires.

Our societies have evolved substantially in these last two centuries and with changing environments, many norms have evolved that guide us every day. They enter our decision-making process in a very subtle manner. This type of decision making, though helpful in many cases, can also lead to many undesirable practices. In some cases, it creates or changes the direction of a norm to one that reduces welfare and inhibits progress. For instance, biases and stereotypes accompanying some actions that are observed and validated by others can grow into the network, making these actions norms or even trends over time. Once internalised, this creates behavioural challenges that are hard to tackle because breaking norms has consequences (negative sanctions: judgment/exclusion) and no one would want to make the first move.

If homo economicus is a person practising strict rationality, motivated only by self-regarding interests, homo sociologicus can said to be following social norms. The broad use of a concept like homo economicus has been continually treated with suspicion when compared to observed reality. Similarly, it is important to keep in mind that we are not purely homo sociologicus either. Many things we do in our lives are very much independent of others’ actions. Wearing warm clothes in winter and eating food when hungry are in most cases independent of how others behave.

Given that, a lot of our choices and how we arrive at them are influenced by both information (facts) and normative expectations in our society. As Merle discussed in her post, heuristics can be sensitive to environment and can be applied inaccurately. Similarly, norms could also be misinterpreted and influence behaviour in a negative way Also, to add to Alina’s discussion on how we process information, while making decisions, one could well be applying (consciously or unconsciously) a norm filter that gives weight to normative expectations held in the reference network.

In many situations, there is an interaction of rationality and sociality. Recent schools of thought (other than neoclassical economics) have been trying to review the concept of an agent by combining individual rationality with individuals in relation to one another. There are good reasons to do so. A stretch, but this might even partly explain the process of the famous invisible hand. Adam Smith’s butcher and baker live in a society and pursue their self-interests while respecting each other’s property rights, they anchor to each others’ wealth accumulation and charity amounts; and go fishing only on a Saturday. Bruni & Sugden (2000) suggest looking at this interdependent system as a network of relations between different agents for mutual assistance (invoking Smith & Hume).

What drives and sustains these inter-connected motivations? This relation between rationality and other-regarding preferences is crucial in better understanding our decision making process.


Bicchieri, C. 2006. The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bruni, L., & Sugden, R. (2000). Moral canals: trust and social capital in the work of Hume, Smith and Genovesi. Economics & Philosophy, 16(1), 21-45. Payne, S., Swami, V., & Stanistreet, D. L. (2008). The social construction of gender and its influence on suicide: a review of the literature. Journal of Men's Health, 5(1), 23-35.

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