Humans are ultrasocial beings. Much alike ants, bees, and our fellow primates, we live in large cooperative societies and benefit of a systematic and extensive division of labor. However, despite our ultrasocial nature, people consider that human behavior, unlike ants and bees, is determined by individual motivations and values. Where are we left? Are we intricately connected with each other in a web of mutual influence? Are we sovrans of our individuality? Or are we a little bit of both? I invite you into the realms of social norms and preset evidence showing that humans are much more interdependent than we are likely to believe and discuss how that understating can help navigating the current complex social world in a pandemic.

In a century old seminal study, Muzafer Sherif asked people to estimate aloud the movement of a light dot in a dark room. Because there was no contextual information, the motionless light dot appeared to move. Sherif showed that the movement estimates of the participants in a group, instead of random, became and remained closer over multiple trails. This ingenious study depicts that, even without much social context, hearing the responses of others led to the development of a social norm – an informal understanding of a situation that governed individual behaviour. Tool number one to navigate the pandemic – acknowledge that a significant part of us is governed by what others do! The same way movement estimates become closer because people hear each other, so will the public health behaviours that matter so much to us right now be perpetuated (often without awareness) through social norms.

We could argue that one thing is to estimate the movement of a light dot and another thing is complex behaviours. Social influence researchers showed that even complex behaviours like voting and energy conservation can be substantially inflated when people are told that other people are doing it! Tool number two – mind that social norms run deep in our nature. Norms are highly pervasive and have a stake even with complex behaviours like public health behaviours.

Finally, we could argue that social norms do not matter much because people are consistently violating norms (indeed, people know the speed limit in a highway is 120km/h, but often drive faster). Now here is the trick – when we expected that people are more likely to violate a norm than not, we hold a norm-violating norm! These norms are particularly important because they reflect our dynamic and ever-changing social world. Additionally, these norms are also particularly important because they can spread across domains. As certain norm-violating behaviours become common (say, littering in the street or a graffiti on private building) they will influence nonconformity to other unrelated norms and rules (trespassing or stealing). Tool number three – norm-violating behaviours can also be the result of social norms. Indeed, many of our norm-violating behaviours can be traced back to the exposure to norm-violating contexts. This to say that, many events in our national context, from the BES corruption case to the discussion about Avante! festivity, can do a great deal to inspire norm-violating public health behaviours.

A final note to say that the same way we are all influenced by other people, other people are also influenced by our own individual behaviours. Social norms are two-way street, formed and edited in a dynamic interplay between people. Tool number four – minding your own individual behaviour can go a long way into building social norms that you believe in. Broaden your personal causes; think in advance and discuss with others about the issues that matter to you; make clear what represents the appropriate behaviours to tackle those issues.

I believe that most social complexities, disputes and frustrations come for focusing too often in finding good justifications for our (and other people’s) behaviors – rationalizing – and too little in finding the actual causes – reasoning. Informing decisions, defining polices, and engaging communities with a clear understanding of our ultrasocial nature could help us delude the current complex social world and move away for rough seas.

Have a great and impactful week!

Sérgio Moreira
Invited Assistant Professor at CLSBE

This article refers to edition #49 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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