Monkey See, Monkey do

The human brain is adapted to detect patterns, enabling us to read, learn and point out all the animal shapes in the clouds, or the face of Jesus in our cornflakes. We seek out patterns that are familiar, it helps us understand and connect with the things around us. Teenagers are particularly perceptive to social patterns; they mimic them to forge their place in social groups. We all think it is something we grow out of, but look a bit deeper and our desire to be normal is sitting right under the surface.

As adults we use the behaviour of other people as a standard to guide our own (Cialdini, Kallgren & Reno, 1991). The theory is that we recognise patterns of behaviour from what we personally experience to create a model of what is ‘normal’ and we alter our behaviour to fit that model. But what we experience is such a small and biased sample that it is unlikely to be representative of the population. We could therefore change behaviour by correcting what is perceived as normal.

Culture shapes our model of normality. You only have to watch movies aimed at teenage American audiences to understand why their population overestimates alcohol consumption in college students (Prentice & Miller, 1993). Imagine, in a population survey the average number of drinks a student will consume on a Saturday night is five. But a small group of students regularly observe cinematic hyperbole and their friends consuming an average of 10 drinks on Saturday nights. According to social-norms theory, showing these students the real ‘normal’ will decrease their consumption.

When this theory was tested the results were mixed and some researchers found an increase in the behaviour they were trying to supress. Until one group of researchers came up with an idea. Imagine another group of students who don’t watch movies and consume an average of two drinks on a Saturday night. Researchers come into the college and present students with a statement that an average of five drinks on a Saturday night is ‘normal’. This group of low-consuming students might increase their consumption so it comes closer to the average.

The researchers tested this theory with household electricity consumption (Schultz et. al, 2007). As predicted, presenting households with a measure of their energy consumption compared to the wider population made high-use households decrease their consumption and low-use households increase their consumption. However, they were able to eliminate the increase in the low-use households simply by presenting them with a smiley face on their energy consumption report.

It seems adult behaviour is strongly influenced by a desire to be ‘normal’. In a changing culture, this is an important skill indeed. I recommend listening to a fascinating case of a troop of Baboons who lost their dominant males and developed a violence-free culture. New males entering the troop had to be able to recognise the new ‘normal’ and imitate it to be accepted into the troop. As communicators we can hijack this same system that creates our early-morning connection with a bowl of cereal and change behaviour by altering perceptions of normality and social acceptability.

I guess it really is a case of monkey see, monkey do


Cialdini, R.B., Kallgren, C.A. & Reno, R.R. (1991) A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct. Advances in Social Psychology, 24, 201-234.

Prentice, D.A. & Miller, D.T. (1993) Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256.

Schultz, W.P., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. & Griskevicius, V. (2007) The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms. Psychological Science, 18(5), 429-43


4 comments so far

  1. shortfletch on

    I thought this was a really interesting post. You had a lot of thought provoking example which is fantastic.

    The beginning part where you talked about television forming our perceptions of normal behavior reminded me of a conversation I had with one of my best friends who is Chinese. She said that she had been told in school, that all American girls will lose their virginity by the time they graduate college/university. I was completely shocked by this statement. Granted, I’m not American so I don’t know for sure, but growing up in a similar culture I am fairly confident that this statement is false. Then I started thinking about all the teenage American tv shows I watch (OC, One Tree Hill, Gossip girl, Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life of an American Teen) and I realized, that while some of the show may lack substance, they don’t really lack sex. My high school life was not that interesting, and it never bothered me that I didn’t look or act like the girls on tv. Still it didn’t ever strike me as odd when I had a friend or heard a rumour about a guy or girl who were doing things that can only be seen on HBO. It really makes me wonder what other social norms are being projected intentionally or unintentionally and whether they are harmful or not.

    A good social norm that I have found in Australia is water conservation. As a foreigner who hasn’t yet mastered the 4 minute shower, I always feel super self-conscious and very guilty when showering around natives. It’s like you judge me for wasting all your precious water (as well you should). Perhaps I need to start a smiley face reward system for myself. One month of smiles and short showers and I get to eat ice cream. Does anyone want to compete with me?

    • rhiandyer on

      You know it is funny I have had a similar experience just moving to Perth from Sydney. I spent my first few weeks catching buses with my head in a book. When I
      finally took my head out and noticed that everone here lines up in a single file waiting for a bus I was so embarassed. I had probably been on the receiving end of some dirty glares on a few occasions.

      It does show the importance of communicating social-norms in general. In a shrinking world where it is common to be in Delhi for breakfast and Perth for dinner, there are are far too many social expectations than can be modified in a brief foray across the Indian Ocean. We cant expect the QANTAS stewards to fit such a debriefing in between how to secure the overhead locker and pointing out the whistle on the life-jacket (even if it is John Travolta himself).

      I will go easy on you for the above average shower time. Just between you and me I am not exactly known for my swifty showering, maybe I should join the ice-cream challenge.

      NB. for everyone reading, LONG SHOWeRS 😦

  2. gracehamilton35 on

    I still have a few months of being a teenager and I completely agree with you in saying that we are particularly perceptive to fitting in. I do feel that it won’t be something I will grow out of completely, the idea of fitting in is important to me. I do believe that if you tell someone what is normal they will change their behaviour to fit in. In situations where the behaviour of a certain group of people is hindering their health, education or the environment I feel this would be a powerful tool to change it.

  3. zoesimmons on

    Such an interesting post 🙂

    I think it is very easy for anyone to say that they are ‘individual’ and that they ‘don’t care what other people think’ but really your probably saying this in a group of friends who all act and dress and view the world in similar ways. making the entire comment somewhat redundant!

    I completely agree when you talk about the high level of importance we humans put on fitting in and being accepted. I still remember my own experience of moving high schools in year 10, I moved from a public school to a private school. This move was hard as I felt like there were a complete different set of social norms at this new school, and to make friends and be accepted I had to live up to these norms.

    I really like the idea of using this need-to-fit-in concept to create attitude changes in the public. I can also see this being quite difficult as different groups within the general public are going to respond to these prompts in different ways. Such as littering, there will always be that minority group who will forever think it’s ‘cool’ to litter. and changing other peoples attitudes (making it a norm) will only segregate that group more rather than including them.

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