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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Are Social Norms and How Do They Impact Us? Behind the Scenes of the Social Brain

December 25, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
December 25, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
December 25, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
December 25, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
December 25, 2023
18 min read

If you've ever felt the invisible tug of society telling you how to act or what to say, you've felt the influence of social norms, the unwritten rules of behavior that are considered acceptable in a group or society. They help us know what’s expected of us in various situations, from the simple — such as saying "please" and "thank you" or knowing what attire is acceptable for different occasions — to the more complex, such as navigating workplace dynamics or managing dinner with your future in-laws. 

Social norms affect virtually every part of our lives and influence our confidence level and success. They also play into our drinking patterns and can be a major factor in our cutting back or quitting journeys. Let’s unpack social norms and explore their impact on our lives!

The History of Social Norms

While social norms feel very “now,” they've actually been around since, well, forever. Let’s take a brief stroll through history to see how they've shaped cultures, societies, and behaviors throughout the ages. Needless to say, they’ve changed pretty significantly over time!

  • The Stone Age and early tribes. In the earliest days of humanity, norms were closely tied to survival. Communities quickly learned that certain behaviors increased the odds of staying alive: sharing food within the tribe, cooperating during hunts, and protecting each other from wild animals or other tribes. The norms back then were all about sharing, cooperating, and watching each other's back! And behaving in socially unacceptable ways (hoarding food, for example) could cause someone to be cast out.
  • Ancient civilizations. As societies grew more complex, so did their norms. In Ancient Egypt, elaborate rituals around death and the afterlife became standard. The Greeks, passionate about philosophy and democracy, cultivated norms around discourse and governance. Meanwhile, in ancient India, the caste system influenced societal roles and behaviors.
  • Middle Ages. Norms were heavily influenced by the church and feudal system. Knights followed chivalric codes, while peasants had their own set of rules (often imposed by nobility). Clothing, too, was a significant indicator of one's status and role in society.
  • Renaissance and Enlightenment. With a renewed interest in art, science, and individual potential, social norms began to shift. Ideas about personal freedoms and rights emerged, challenging established norms and leading to significant societal changes that emphasized individual agency and responsibilities toward other members of the community.
  • Industrial Age to today. The rapid urbanization and technological advancements of the last couple of centuries have dramatically reshaped societal norms. Think about it: a hundred years ago, who could've imagined norms around smartphone etiquette? Yet, here we are!

The last few decades have also witnessed some profound changes related to civil rights and liberties. From the Civil Rights Movement in the United States fighting against racial segregation and discrimination, to the global push for LGBTQ+ rights and women's marches demanding gender equality, social norms have been both challenged and redefined. These movements have challenged the status quo, showing that while norms might shape society, society can reshape norms. 

Throughout history, social norms have both reflected and shaped the zeitgeist of the times. They provide fascinating insights into what societies value, fear, and aspire to. And as history has shown, while norms may be deeply entrenched, they're not set in stone. They evolve, just as we do. Who knows what the norms of tomorrow will look like? One thing's for sure: we'll play a part in shaping them!

The Science Behind the Influence

Now let’s shift gears a bit and explore the biological underpinnings of social norms. Our brains are wired to fit in. Research has shown that our brain's dopamine-driven reward centers light up when we conform to social norms, giving us a literal feel-good sensation when we fit in.

Understanding the science behind social norms isn't just about knowing the "what," but the "why." Let's deep dive into the neural pathways, evolutionary reasons, and the psychology that play a role in how we conform and respond to social norms.

  • Evolutionary perspective. Humans are inherently social creatures. From an evolutionary standpoint, being accepted by our tribe was a matter of survival. Those who didn't adhere to group norms could be ostracized, which could be a question of life or death. So there's a good reason why we evolved to feel uneasy when we go against the grain! 

    From our earliest days as hunter-gatherers, sticking together was a strategy for survival. Being part of a group meant better protection from predators and more access to food. Over time, this advantage translated into a genetic predisposition towards group harmony. Following social norms was one of the easiest ways to avoid missing out on the crucial benefits that came with being part of a group. The evolutionary mantra was simple: conform or face potential isolation.
  • Neural connections. Recent studies have used advanced neuroimaging techniques to provide insights into how our brains react to social norms. The brain's reward system, particularly regions like the ventral striatum, lights up when we act in accordance with social expectations. It's a dopamine-driven pat on the back for fitting in. Conversely, when we go against the grain, the anterior insula, which is associated with negative feelings and discomfort, becomes more active. Our brain is wired to reward conformity and "punish" deviation.
  • The role of mirror neurons. Discovered in the 1990s, mirror neurons are cells in the brain that fire both when a person acts and when a person observes an action performed by another. This mirroring mechanism can lead us to subconsciously imitate the behaviors of those around us, further reinforcing societal norms. If everyone in a room stands up when a certain song begins, even if you don't know why, your initial impulse might be to stand as well. Thank mirror neurons for that!
  • Psychological safety and belonging. Humans have an inherent need to belong, as proposed by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. Social norms create an environment where individuals can predict and understand group behaviors, leading to a sense of psychological safety. Knowing what's expected and seeing others conforming reduces our anxiety and fear of social rejection.
  • Cultural and generational shifts. It's also worth noting that while our brains have certain hardwired tendencies, the specifics of social norms are malleable; they change over time. The same behavior that gets the dopamine flowing in one culture or era might trigger the anterior insula in another.

The science of social norms paints a vivid picture: our brains are designed to promote conformity, both for our literal survival and our social well-being. However, as with all things in life, balance is key. Blind conformity stifles individuality, so it's essential to find that sweet spot between fitting in and being true to oneself.

Social Norms: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Social norms are nuanced, and not all are ultimately helpful. They can be a double-edged sword: they offer structure and predictability but also limits, stereotypes, and sometimes harm. Recognizing the multifaceted nature of norms is the first step in navigating them mindfully, ensuring they serve as helpful guides rather than restrictive chains.

Let’s examine these facets in more detail.

1. “The Good” — When Social Norms Help Us Communicate and Work Together

Social norms can provide safety and understanding. Imagine if there were no standards for driving on the road — chaos would ensue!

  • Maintaining social order. In many ways, social norms are the glue that holds society together. They provide a predictable framework that helps avoid chaos. Think about the simple norm of standing in line at the grocery store — it ensures that everyone gets what they need to make dinner, even if it takes a bit longer during rush hour.
  • Facilitating communication. Norms around language, gestures, and non-verbal cues help us communicate more effectively. In many cultures, for example, maintaining eye contact during a conversation indicates attentiveness and respect.
  • Encouraging positive behaviors. Many norms reinforce behaviors that are beneficial for the wider community. Recycling, for instance, is now a societal norm in many regions, promoting environmental responsibility.

2. “The Bad” — When Social Norms Get Restrictive or Prevent Progress

Sometimes, social norms can perpetuate limiting stereotypes or beliefs. Ever felt the pressure to look a certain way because "it's the norm"? That's a downside right there.

  • Perpetuating stereotypes. Some social norms can pigeonhole individuals based on gender, race, or background. For example, the belief that certain roles are “best suited” for men or women can limit opportunities and reinforce stereotypes.
  • Pressure to conform. The overwhelming desire to fit in can sometimes lead people to suppress their true selves. This can result in mental and emotional strain as we struggle to align our personal beliefs with societal expectations.
  • Resisting positive change. If a societal norm is deeply ingrained, it can be resistant to change — even if the change is positive. People might cling to “the way things have always been,” hindering progress.

3. “The Ugly” — When Social Norms Bring Out Our Dark Side

Unfortunately, not all widely accepted behaviors are benign. In some cases, social norms encourage behaviors that are downright detrimental to individual or societal well-being and bring out the worst of human nature. 

  • Supporting harmful practices. Sometimes, traditions that are harmful physically or mentally can persist because they're normalized and have been part of the culture for generations. Think about cultures that prioritize work to the point of burnout — that's an unhealthy norm we might want to reconsider.
  • Creating in-groups and out-groups. Strong norms can sometimes lead to the exclusion of those who don't or can't conform. This can result in discrimination, bias, ostracization, or even persecution of the “out-group.”
  • Suppressing individual growth. Over time, the pressure to conform to the norm can stifle creativity, innovation, and personal growth. If everyone is striving to fit a particular mold, there’s no room for individuality.

Into the Abyss: Stanford and Milgram Experiments

Some of the darkest facets of our inclination to follow social norms came about as a result of two of the most chilling studies in the realm of social psychology — the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's Obedience Studies. Each starkly illuminates the extent to which humans might go under the weight of perceived norms and authority.

1. The Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment at Stanford University that involved turning a basement into a makeshift prison. He randomly assigned college students to roles of prisoners or guards. The goal? To study the effects of perceived power in a simulated prison environment.

The results were harrowing:

  • Rapid descent into tyranny. The “guards” began displaying aggressive and abusive behaviors towards the “prisoners” without being instructed to do so.
  • Loss of individual identity. The “prisoners” began to show signs of severe stress and emotional trauma. They started accepting the abusive behavior, and some even turned against fellow inmates.

The study, initially intended to last two weeks, was terminated after just six days due to the extreme psychological effects that were observed right off the bat. This experiment highlighted how quickly social roles and norms can influence behavior, pushing people to act in ways they'd never have imagined they would have.

2. Milgram’s Obedience Studies

In the 1960s, in an effort to understand the events of World War II, psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to explore the factors that drove people to commit atrocious acts simply because they were ordered to.

Participants were led to believe they were part of a learning experiment that involved administering electric shocks to another participant (who was actually an actor) every time he or she answered a question incorrectly. As the questions progressed, participants were prompted to administer increasingly severe shocks, despite hearing the painful screams of the actors.

To everyone’s horror and surprise, a significant number of participants went on to administer what they believed to be fatal electric shocks just because an authoritative figure (the experimenter wearing a lab coat) told them it was necessary — and, if the subjects resisted, the authority figure pressured them by saying that not doing so would sabotage the experiment. In this way, Milgram’s study unveiled a disconcerting truth about human nature: many people are willing to go against their moral compass under pressure from an authority figure.

Both experiments demonstrate the profound influence of social norms and authority on human behavior. While they serve as extreme examples, they are stark reminders that societal pressures and blind obedience to perceived norms can lead us astray. They also underscore the importance of critical thinking, self-awareness, and moral integrity in the face of societal and authoritative pressures.

Social Norms and the Alcohol Journey

Violence toward others isn’t the only potentially problematic aspect of social norms. Sometimes social pressures lead us to make choices that jeopardize our own health — such as the pressure brought about by drinking culture.

Alcohol plays a major role in social interactions worldwide. As a result, when someone decides to quit or cut back on alcohol, they often confront the mighty force of social norms. Let’s explore this challenging intersection.

  • The societal cheers. Many societies use alcohol as a symbol of relaxation, festivity, and camaraderie. It’s a staple at weddings, parties, and even casual get-togethers. This widespread acceptance and promotion can make it seem like alcohol is an indispensable part of social life (though it certainly doesn’t have to be!).
  • Celebrations and traditions. Many events are traditionally associated with alcohol: Champagne for anniversaries, wine for dinners, or beers at a barbecue. Skipping the drink in such settings can make us feel out of place or even attract unwanted attention.
  • Peer pressure. “Come on, just one drink!” is a phrase many hear when they're trying to cut back. Friends, even if well-intentioned, can sometimes push because they don't want to drink alone or because they believe the experience won’t be complete without it.
  • Professional settings. In some industries, deals are sealed and bonds are forged over rounds of drinks. Declining can sometimes feel like missing out on networking or bonding opportunities.

These are just some of the challenges on the path to alcohol reduction or abstinence:

  • Feeling isolated. Social norms around drinking can make those who abstain feel isolated. The fear of missing out (FOMO) on gatherings or being labeled “the sober one” can be daunting.
  • Misunderstandings. People might make assumptions or misinterpret our decision to not drink. They might think it’s for medical reasons or believe there’s a hidden “problem” (not that there’s any shame in that, especially if we’re addressing it) when it might simply be a personal choice.
  • Internal struggles. Fighting a societal norm can lead to internal conflict. There might be moments of doubt when we question our decision, wondering if we’re overreacting or missing out.

Changing Tides 

Fortunately, the narrative is slowly shifting. With increasing awareness of mental health and the benefits of a sober or reduced-alcohol lifestyle, the stigma is lessening. While social norms regarding alcohol can still pose challenges for those looking to quit or cut back, the landscape is evolving. The key is to stay true to our convictions, seek supportive environments, and remember that everyone’s journey is unique.

  • Sober curious movement. More people are exploring sobriety out of curiosity and health consciousness, making it a lifestyle choice rather than a response to addiction.
  • Alternative gatherings. Events centered around activities that don’t involve alcohol, like morning dance parties or group meditations, are on the rise.
  • Supportive communities. Online forums, support groups, and sober communities are flourishing, havens for those looking to share their journey, struggles, and successes.

Action Steps To Navigate Social Norms Mindfully

  • Self-awareness is key. Regularly check in with yourself. Are you doing something because you truly believe in it or because it's just "what people do"?
  • Educate yourself. Knowledge is power. The more you understand why certain norms exist, the better equipped you'll be to decide if they align with your values.
  • Foster safe spaces. Create environments where friends and family can be themselves. When people feel accepted, they're less likely to blindly follow norms that don't serve them.
  • Challenge with compassion. If you feel a norm is outdated or harmful, speak up! But remember to approach conversations with understanding and empathy.
  • Focus on personal growth. The more secure you are in your values and beliefs, the less likely you'll be swayed by societal pressures. Cultivate self-love and acceptance.
  • Seek like-minded communities. Surround yourself with people who share your values. Whether it's an online group or a local club, find your tribe.
  • Practice regular reflection. Taking time to reflect on your actions and decisions can help you understand if you're acting out of personal conviction or societal pressure.

Charting Our Own Course

Social norms are part and parcel of our daily lives. Understanding their origins and impact helps us navigate them in a way that aligns with our individual values and promotes overall well-being. So the next time you feel that societal tug, take a moment to pause, reflect, and choose the path that's truly right for you. 

Moreover, understanding the dynamics of social norms around alcohol can empower us on our journeys of quitting or cutting back. Seeing norms from an outside perspective and without judgment lets us decide what course of action is right for us. And as more and more people have started to do that in recent years, leading to a noticeable shift in the drinking culture, we’re in great company!

Summary FAQs

1. What are social norms?

Social norms are unwritten rules or expectations that dictate appropriate behavior within a particular group or society. They shape our daily interactions, guiding how we behave and communicate with others.

2. How did social norms originate?

Social norms have historical roots, evolving over time as societies grew more complex. They arose from a need for order and predictability, especially in early civilizations where cooperation was essential for survival. In recent decades, the focus has also been on civil rights and liberties, reflecting a shift in societal consciousness.

3. How do social norms impact our behavior?

Social norms exert a powerful influence on our actions, as they establish a benchmark for what is deemed acceptable or typical in society. From how we dress to how we interact, these norms can shape our choices, sometimes even subconsciously.

4. Are there any downsides to social norms?

While many norms promote harmony and order, there are potential pitfalls. Some norms perpetuate stereotypes, create pressure to conform, and can even support harmful practices. Experiments like the Stanford Prison and Milgram’s Obedience Studies illustrate the darker implications of unchecked societal pressures.

5. How do social norms play a role in our alcohol consumption habits?

Alcohol is deeply embedded in many societal rituals and celebrations. When someone tries to cut back or quit, they often grapple with societal norms and expectations. However, with rising awareness, there's a gradual shift towards more inclusive views on sobriety.

6. What can we learn from the Stanford and Milgram experiments regarding social norms?

These experiments show the profound influence of societal roles, norms, and authority on behavior. They remind us that individuals can sometimes act against their moral values under pressure, highlighting the importance of critical thinking and self-awareness.

7. How can we navigate social norms more mindfully?

By being aware of their influence, questioning their validity, and choosing which norms align with our personal values. It’s essential to remember that while norms can guide, they shouldn't dictate our lives. We have the power to redefine and challenge norms, ensuring they serve as helpful guides rather than restrictive chains.

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