Social Norms and Identity Relevance: A Motivational Approach to Normative Behavior

The article talks about how social identity makes people in a group inclined to normative (normal) behavior. Meaning that people will behave in a similar way to fit into the group. People are also noted to behave differently when they are in different groups.

Types of Norms

Injunctive Norms

  • Often enforced by social rewards and punishments.
  • Self-standards that specify the ideal person people want to become.
  • When actions comply with self-standards, people feel pride or relief.
  • Failure to comply results in guilt or anxiety.

Descriptive Norms

  • Typical conduct of humans.
  • People think that “what most people are doing is probably the right thing to do.”
  • E.g., many people are gazing up at the sky. The descriptive norms in behavior can lead to more people gazing up at the sky out of curiosity.
  • People do not necessary feel pride nor guilt, but rather, surprise.

An experimental study was done to find out if people would conform or violate a norm under different situations along with a survey of the participants’ self-standards & morals.  A rival group was used in the descriptive norm test to enhance group members’ needs to have a more fitting social identity and group behavior (united).


  • Normative behavior on self-evaluations depend on motivations to identify with the group
  • Injunctive norms represent the core values of social groups à use to evaluate  social identity
  • Descriptive norm:
    • Can also be used to evaluate social identity among the group only when there was a rival group involved.
    • Seems only able to influence emotions but not self-standard discrepancies.

The article concludes that identity-relevance is the key factor in determining whether norms are used to evaluate behavior. People who conform to a norm positively are expected to persist with these behaviors/actions to increase their identity within the group.

My Views

Injunctive and descriptive norms are about individuals’ behaviors to conform to a group. The article was solely on individual’s actions and emotions. The implicating factors that follow these norms will be favoritism and prejudices from group members – common social problems that everyone has to face. But isn’t it silly to lose your own individuality and principles just to please others?

Telling lies to please others.

Smoking just because everyone in the group smokes.

I would think that these norms are affected/motivated by peer pressure. In the end it comes down to how much an individual wants to be accepted in a group to be able to comply with the norms. Norms are affected by the choices people make, not cause-and-effect.

So, do you find yourself conforming when you are in groups to make sure others would not view you in a bad light?

Do you think that being in a group means to comply with everyone, or is individual thinking more important?



Christensen, P. N., Rothgerber, H., Wood, W., & Matz, D. C. (2004). Social Norms and Identity Relevance: A Motivational Approach to Normative Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(10), 1295-1309.


4 comments so far

  1. fireprism on

    I believe that all people no matter what background, have a longing to be accepted by others. This is ingrained in the human psyche that we have a need for community and acceptance by fellow humans. It does not come as a surprise that we may feel varying amounts of pressure to conform to the norms of certain groups otherwise one would be ostracized. This pressure, as you have pointed out, may result in people learning the wrong values or habits such as telling lies just to stay relevant or accepted to such a group. And if one does fall out with a particular group, it will not be long before this individual begins to search for another group that is able to offer acceptance. Ultimately, I believe that all groups have their own limits on acceptance; i.e. give and take.

    In the context of a group, individual thinking is still important though it would be wise to avoid any provocative thoughts or discussion that may disrupt the unity of the group.

  2. paykram on

    Hi Wei Ting,

    I read your blog post with great interest. I thought it was succinctly put and a pleasure to read.

    I will just like to offer a different take on giving in to social norms. Sometimes we please others when we give in to norms, but ultimately I feel it’s mostly about pleasing ourselves.

    The need for esteem is fourth on Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs after love/belonging. “All humans have a need to be respected and to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others.” (wiki, 2012)

    It boils down to pleasing ourselves more than pleasing others. At times, standing out from the crowd can bring about more acceptance and value. At other times, it might be better to simply blend in with the crowd.

    To look at this with a view from evolutionary theory, the lone gazelle that strays away from the herd often find itself easy prey to predators. Perhaps the same behavior in humans can be thought of as a leftover survival instinct. It is a dog eat dog world after all.

    In short, social norms and peer pressure are powerful forces to be reckoned with. It has been researched and documented. Understanding this better equips us to deal with it in the real world. Knowing how to harness it can get you ahead in life.

    To answer your question, I do think individual thought is important. Also important in my opinion is the ability to pick your battles. Sometimes, conforming can be a result of individual thought deciding that it’s better to conform… this time. A-HA! You see what I did there?

    P.S. I am feeling particularly inspired this afternoon, hence the long post. You would be crazy to think all comments should be this long.

    • snowkinz on

      indeed, interesting comment & video. Self-esteem certainly is another factor to consider here in social theory.
      i think that everyone views social issues differently. Some may put self-esteem on top, others may put harmony on top. Too many factors affecting these different “reactions” to social issues

  3. leothg on

    ‘Norms are affected by the choice people made, not cause-and effect.’

    Very interesting argument made by snowkinz, i do agree to a certain extent that social norms are shape based on the attitudes of people choose to behave.

    “However, i do not agree that being in a group means to comply with everyone else. I firmly believe that we live for ourselves, for our own beliefs and value, one does not live for the sake of other people. Why should we comply to the rules set by others if they are against our own believes? If i do not like the place, i’ll choose to leave the group.

    I feel that instead of conforming on the standards of living set by the ‘other’, the pre-existing values of a person are more important and it determine the actions and attitudes we have in the society. ”

    (But in reality…)

    In this cruel society, we have to oblige to the rules and standards of living set by the whole society, the socials norms of the country. If one were to challenge such an ideal, will be slowly discarded and label as the ‘other’ by the rest of the norms around.

    Especially in the context in Singapore, things are always moving and in motion. No one will really bother by your indifferent and if you cannot blend in with the norms, they will just leave you behind and discard you. Therefore i feel that individual thinking are very important as it defines each and everyone of us, but in this harsh society, we have no choice but learn to comply.

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