two people shaking hands

Social Norms

Lens: Type: Stethoscope
Social Norms:

Unwritten “rules” that define acceptable behavior.

Unwritten “rules” define acceptable behaviors in specific settings. For example, at Thanksgiving holiday dinner in the U.S., some families “understand” that no one eats until prayer is said. In the southern United States, it’s a common expectation for children to say yes ma’am and no ma’am when they address a woman. When boarding an elevator, it is expected behavior to walk in, then turn around to face the doors. Social norms are often not explicitly shared, but through experience and observation, people learn these social rules inherent in different settings. People who break social norms are often seen as outsiders because they do not behave “properly.” When designers are familiar with the established rules in a setting, they can create products, services, and systems that will work in harmony with these norms.

Researching Social Norms

Designers who research social norms discover behaviors that are acceptable in different settings. If design outcomes intend to work within the rules of a setting, researching norms provides designers with a list of norms to address. If stakeholders intend to design outcomes that break norms, researching social rules reveals how norms emerged in a setting and their effects. By researching norms, designers can create products, services, and systems whose styling and operation can effectively address matters in contexts.

Questions to Ask About Social Norms

  • What activities are allowable in this setting?
  • How did social norms emerge?
  • What cultural attitudes established these norms?
  • Who do these norms place in power?

Look for These When Researching Social Norms

  • Ways people dress
  • Cultural activities
  • Explicit and tacit expectations for behavior
  • Ways people speak
  • Gestures people make


References and sources that support the inclusion of this Aspects of Experiences for Design component.


Marmor, A. (2009). Social conventions: from language to law. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Social Sciences

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: Environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(1), 18-28. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.18

Ahmad, S. N. (2016). The Role of Social Facilitation Theory on Consumer Decision Making: A Conceptual Framework. American Journal of Management, 16(2).

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory in cultural context. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 51(2), 269-290.

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1990). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. (Kindle ed.). New York: Open Road Media.

Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity, and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. Vol 2. 151-192). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: Recycling the Concept of Norms to Reduce Littering in Public Places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015-1026.

Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (2017). Social cognition: from brains to culture. (3rd ed.). London: SAGE.

Kahneman, D. (1992). Reference points, anchors, norms, and mixed feelings. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 51(2), 296-312. doi:10.1016/0749-5978(92)90015-Y

Lapinski, M. K., Kerr, J. M., Zhao, J., & Shupp, R. S. (2017). Social Norms, Behavioral Payment Programs, and Cooperative Behaviors: Toward a Theory of Financial Incentives in Normative Systems. Human Communication Research, 43(1), 148-171.

Marmor, A. (2009). Social conventions: from language to law. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Park, H. S., & Smith, S. W. (2007). Distinctiveness and influence of subjective norms, personal descriptive and injunctive norms, and societal descriptive and injunctive norms on behavioral intent: A case of two behaviors critical to organ donation. Human Communication Research, 33(2), 194-218. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00296.x

Rimal, R. N., & Lapinski, M. K. (2015). A Re-Explication of Social Norms, Ten Years Later. Communication Theory (1050-3293), 25(4), 393-409.

Turner, J. C., & Reynolds, K. J. (2012). Self-Categorization Theory. In P. A. M. V. Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, Volume 2 (pp. 399-417). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.