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Norm Psychology

Social norms have been crucial for the evolution of modern-day human societies, yet little is known about the conditions in which people become most sensitive to them. One reason for this has been methodological, since people are rarely consciously aware of the influence norms exert on them and cannot always reliably answer self-report questions about them. To overcome this issue, some researchers compare profiles between countries. While this approach has been informative for many questions, country is a rather crude level of analysis, which calls for a complementary approach to uncover the individual-level dynamics.

To do so, we take a neuroscience approach by analyzing spontaneous responses to norm violations. This approach has provided new insights that cannot be covered by self-report or country level analyses alone. For example, prior studies show that countries that value interdependence, tend to also be tight, or have strict norms (Gelfand et al., 2011). To experimentally test this, we primed interdependence (vs. a control) and found increased sensitivity to social norms, but only for people who think their cultural contexts are already strict (i.e., tight) (Salvador et al., 2020Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience). Our work suggests that the link between interdependence and sensitivity to norms is dependent on an individuals’ perceptions of the norms in their culture. Although we found one context in which interdependence upregulates the attunement to social norms, over time this value may also provide a sense of security through social connection. In a second experiment, we primed participants with a disease threat (vs. a control) and found an upregulation in both the spontaneous detection and top-down vigilance to norm violations. This evidence is consistent with evolutionary theories and country-level patterns suggesting that people ‘tighten’ or increase their sensitivity to social norms in the presence of threat (Gelfand et al., 2011). However, this effect was attenuated among people high in interdependence (Salvador et al., 2020Biological Psychology). Our findings suggest that social relationships can have a powerful analgesic effect in the presence of threat, which has provided an important revision to theories on threat and norm sensitivity. We have also since conceptually replicated this finding with the threat of COVID-19 (Rossmaier, Salvador & Kitayama, in preparation).

The study of social norms is crucial not only to understand individual and cultural dynamics, but also to understand changes in times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all countries throughout the world, but it is clear that some countries have been affected more than others. Many factors are likely involved. For example, countries or cities that have more widespread vaccine policies for related diseases such as tuberculosis (i.e., BCG) (Berg, Yu, Salvador, Melani & Kitayama, 2020, Science Advances), and less inequality and segregation (Yu, Salvador, Melani, Berg, Neblett & Kitayama, 2021Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) have fared better. Importantly, other factors may be socio-cultural. COVID-19 is primarily transmitted between individuals, thus societies where norms about social relationships tend to be more open may be more vulnerable to the disease. In particular, we hypothesized that relational mobility, or the degree to which people in a society interact with others of their choosing, influences the spread of the virus.

Country-wise growth rates for (b) confirmed cases and (d) deaths are shown as a function of relational mobility for each country. The black line indicates the best-fitting regression. All shaded regions represent standard errors.

We found that societies high in relational mobility (e.g., Mexico and the United States) had a faster spread of the virus than societies low in relational mobility (e.g., Japan and Hungary). Importantly our effects held after a variety of robustness checks, including controls for testing availability, underreporting of cases, cultural and demographic variables (Salvador et al., 2020, Psychological Science).

Our findings show how flexible relational norms can be a liability at the time of the pandemic. Together, this work shows the powerful influence social norms can have on our psychology, which as a lab we are continuing to study. For example, norms can be represented in subtle forms of language, in ways that are universal and variable across contexts (Salvador, Orvell, Kross & Gelman, under review). Our lab is further examining how aspects of the cultural context and ecology can cue normative information and how this has implications for morality and cultural values.