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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A new framework for the psychology of norms

Westra, E., & Andrews, K. (2021, July 9).


Social Norms – rules that dictate which behaviors are appropriate, permissible, or obligatory in different situations for members of a given community – permeate all aspects of human life. Many researchers have sought to explain the ubiquity of social norms in human life in terms of the psychological mechanisms underlying their acquisition, conformity, and enforcement. Existing theories of the psychology of social norms appeal to a variety of constructs, from prediction-error minimization, to reinforcement learning, to shared intentionality, to evolved psychological adaptations. However, most of these accounts share what we call the psychological unity assumption, which holds that there is something psychologically distinctive about social norms, and that social norm adherence is driven by a single system or process. We argue that this assumption is mistaken. In this paper, we propose a methodological and conceptual framework for the cognitive science of social norms that we call normative pluralism. According to this framework, we should treat norms first and foremost as a community-level pattern of social behavior that might be realized by a variety of different cognitive, motivational, and ecological mechanisms. Norm psychologists should not presuppose that social norms are underpinned by a unified set of processes, nor that there is anything particularly distinctive about normative cognition as such. We argue that this pluralistic approach offers a methodologically sound point of departure for a fruitful and rigorous science of norms.


The central thesis of this paper –what we’ve called normative pluralism–is that we should not take the psychological unity of social norms for granted.Social norms might be underpinned by a domain-specific norm system or by a single type of cognitive process, but they might also be the product of many different processes. In our methodological proposal, we outlined a novel, non-psychological conception of social norms –what we’ve called normative regularities –and defined the core components of a psychology of norms in light of this construct. In our empirical proposal, we argued that thus defined, social norms emerge from a heterogeneous set of cognitive, affective, and ecological mechanisms.

Thinking about social norms in this way will undoubtedly make the cognitive science of norms more complex and messy. If we are correct, however, then this will simply be a reflection of the complexity and messiness of social norms themselves. Taking a pluralistic approach to social norms allows us to explore the potential variability inherent to norm-governed behavior, which can help us to better understand how social norms shape our lives, and how they manifest themselves throughout the natural world.