Posted by & filed under Clinical Psychology, Cultural Variation, Emerging Adulthood, Intergroup Relations, Interpersonal Attraction Close Relationships, Persuasion, Social Influence, Social Psychology, Social Psychology, Stress Coping - Health.

Description: As noted in another recent post, and as you have no doubt noticed, there is a LOT is life change (and related stress) associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is worth reflecting for a bit on the changes we are experiencing that are not as objectively defined as a lack of income, a lack of entertainment options or a lack of toilet paper. Specifically, our social contacts have shifted so we are spending more time alone than usual or we are spending far more time with immediate family members that we usually do and consequently we missing or perhaps locally over-loading the consistency or continuity we typically rely on in the form of our unreflected social norms or social meanings. Think about what it typically means to a teenager when one or both of their parents tell them they want to “talk with them.” Think about what adults might be feeling as they speak with good neighborhood friends from opposite sides of the street or from their respective front or back porches. Social norms about social distance about the frequency and anticipated intensity of social interactions are all messed up by or current circumstances and we may not have really been consciously aware of them in the first place. When people describe their current living situations as chaotic, they are likely only able to point to or articulate a portion of what makes up that chaos. Think about it. You may feel that handshaking was just a stupid, useless social habit but for many people it had significant social meaning. It reflected trust, openness, and established a social distance that was thought to be comfortable for a friendly social engagement. Now we have to maintain a safe physical distance of about 2 arm lengths and while we know why that is (to make viral transmission less likely) we may not be automatically or effectively adjusting for the impact of these new requirements on the violations some of our social norms. Think about how many social norms, that you adhere to, are now regularly violated due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Not sure? Well, over 80 years ago Social Psychologist Muzafer Sherif used the Autokinetic Effect to demonstrate the formation of Social Norms. Individuals in a dark (light sealed) room were shown a tiny (point source) light several arms lengths away from them and were asked what they saw. All said the light was moving except that it was not moving at all, what was moving were their heads and eyes but, in the dark with no external reference points participants could not factor out their eye and body movements and so attributed them to the light. The amount of (illusory) movement they reported varied from a few centimeters to a couple of feet. Sherif then put different people into the dark room in groups and asked them to share their perceptions of movement and come up with a group consensus as to how much the light was moving and the results? Well, the groups tended to fairly quickly come up with am movement estimate that they all agreed with AND those estimated varied about as much as had those of individuals ranging from a few centimeters to a couple of feet. When Sherif brought group member back weeks later and tested them again individually rather than in groups they tended to continue to report that they were seeing the amount of movement their group had decided was happening. In the groups, not certain as to what they were seeing, they formed a social norm which then informed their individual perceptions month later even when they were alone in the room and they did not tend to say anything like “we voted on it and decided on this number so I am sticking with that” instead they simply reported what they were “seeing” even though it was a social (rather than an objective) norm. Social norms are not stupid habits, they provide meaning that we can assume or rely on in situations that do not have objective meaning on their own. Like handshaking, like many other cultural practices, they just are what they are. Over the past few days and weeks, a great many social conventions have been challenged or deemed dangerous. If Life Change = Stress then it would be a good idea to work at bringing some of these social norms and conventions that we are no longer engaging in to mind and at least acknowledging the costs, in terms of chaos, uncertainty, anxiety and stress associated with no longer being able to just do them. Just as important is to think about what we are going to replace them with. I mean, how do you modulate an elbow bump, wave, or bow in order to communicate the same social nuances that could be included in a handshake? In light of this, dismissing the lost opportunities for handshaking as just a stupid ritual anyway is a little bit like for preschool and early grade school children dismiss things they do not understand, like manners or thank-you notes, as “stoopid.”

Source: Is Obsessing Over Daily Coronavirus Statistics Counterproductive?, Ellen Peters, Opinion, The New York Times

Date: March 12, 2020

Photo Credit:  Gerd Altmann from Pixabay and kiquebg from Pixabay

Article Link:

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are some examples of social norms that we use in some or many of our social interactions?
  2. What roles or purposes do the social norms you listed above play in our social interactions?
  3. Can you think of some ways in which we could or are replacing lost social behaviors such as handshakes in our social interactions going forward?

References (Read Further):

Sherif, M. (1937). An experimental approach to the study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1(1/2), 90-98.

Abrams, D., & Levine, J. M. (2012). The formation of social norms: Revisiting Sherif’s autokinetic illusion study. Social psychology: Revisiting the classic studies, 57-75. Link

Moscovici, S., & Moscovici, S. (1991). Experiment and experience: An intermediate step from Sherif to Asch. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 21(3), 253-268. Link

Walter, N. (1955). A study of the effects of conflicting suggestions upon judgments in the autokinetic situation. Sociometry, 18(2), 138-146.


Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Invoking social norms: A social psychology perspective on improving hotels’ linen-reuse programs. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48(2), 145-150. Link

Lewis, M. A., & Neighbors, C. (2006). Social norms approaches using descriptive drinking norms education: A review of the research on personalized normative feedback. Journal of American College Health, 54(4), 213-218.

Rakoczy, H., & Schmidt, M. F. (2013). The early ontogeny of social norms. Child Development Perspectives, 7(1), 17-21.

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