Social norms entail learned expectations of behavior or categorization that are deemed desirable, or at least appear as unproblematic (Sherif 1936) for a specific social group in a given situation. Mass media have been found to help shape perceptions of behavioral norms. These perceptions are consequential for health behaviors, social and sexual practices, democratic participation, and a range of other outcomes.
Certain social norms that are considered of extreme importance are typically elevated to the category of legal norms and are enforced through institutional apparatuses. Other norms remain subject to less formalized modes of social control, including systems of rewards and punishments based precisely on sociability that include different combinations of isolation and recognition. Social scientists have long focused on certain key institutions of socialization in which those generalized expectations of behavior are learned by a new generation, namely the family, formal education institutes, and peer group interactions. Mass media are increasingly recognized as another important institution of socialization and cultivator of behavioral norms.
Social scientists began to acknowledge media as an important socialization institution with the explosion of mass communication in the twentieth century. In addition to the transmission of information, mass media also convey behavioral expectations, offering role models as well as interpretive schemas to define a situation. Different empirical research traditions within communication and related fields provide evidence of how media influence perceptions of social reality and “cultivate” attitudes and beliefs about the world. The emergence of the indirect effects paradigm has highlighted the importance of media for the perception of social norms, and explored the implications of these perceptions in greater detail. As a consequence, the study of media and perceptions of behavioral norms have become an important area of research in different areas of communication research including politics, health, gender, and identity.
Scholars working within the social norms paradigm are certain of the influence that social norms exert on individual and collective behavior. Yet the processes by which this influence occurs and the role of communication in this process are contested domains (Yanovitzky & Rimal 2006). In some early conceptualizations, social norms were understood as external social artifacts that regulated rewards and punishments within a group. Through a process of internalization these norms were incorporated by the individual (Sherif 1936). Social norms exist in all realms of human activity as a system of customs and/or laws of expected behavior in a given situation, and these customs and laws are expressed individually as values, attitudes, beliefs, and opinions.
Social norms of course are not unproblematic; they can be contradictory, evolve, and are perpetually challenged by emerging phenomena that test the limits of previously accepted expectations. Most individuals navigate the social world accepting certain norms while rejecting others, a “choice” that is socially constructed but also an individual expression. These choices result from, but also determine, our group affiliations. More current approaches view social or group norms as “regularities in attitudes and behaviors that characterize a social group and differentiate it from other social groups” (Hogg & Reid 2006, 7).
Media And Social Norms
Social norms are “formed, reformed and maintained through human communication” (Yanovitzky & Rimal 2006, 2). In smaller groups people can infer the group’s norms from explicit communication and implicit behaviors (Hogg & Reid 2006), but in larger groups mass media serve as conveyors of both words and actions.
These characterizations of groups are critical in helping us navigate the social world. Most importantly, they contribute in the construction of our own identity (for a review of this social identity perspective see Hogg & Reid 2006). In part who we are is determined by the groups we belong to and our emotional attachment to these groups. By categorization into groups, as well as out of groups, the individual self is defined in terms of similarities and dissimilarities to patterned behaviors. This process of identity construction entails not only adherence to perceived group norms, since what a “typical” group member would do in a given situation is what “I” should do in that situation provided I feel part of this group, but also the expectations “I” have about the behaviors of members of other groups. Consistency between group norms (potentially internalized as attitudes) and behavior increases with the importance attributed to group membership.
Media would contribute to this process of self-identity formation based on group portrayals with or to which a person sees some correspondence or attachment. Media working as socializing agents would then provide role models of “appropriate” attitudes and behaviors both reinforcing group norms and, more fundamentally, exemplifying the available group affiliations available at a given point in time.
To a certain extent all communication research traditions provide evidence of the importance of mass media in the perception of behavioral norms. From agenda setting and its focus on the relative importance of social problems that is provided by media attention (Althaus & Tewksbury 2002), to cultivations of social reality by the disproportionate and continuous presentation of exemplars (Williams 2006), to more critical accounts in which elites secure consent for a given political order through the production and diffusion of meaning and values through mass media (Carragee & Roefs 2004), the notion that media transmit behavioral norms is implied. Nevertheless, the case for a direct relationship between exposure to mass media and differential perception of social reality is probably exemplified best by the cultivation tradition, according to which sustained exposure to mediated messages, particularly television, cultivates a common outlook on the world in which mediated reality becomes more important than real-world experiences.
Based on this notion of social norms and the power of media in their construction and dissemination, there is a long tradition of interventions in the form of communication campaigns that seek to alter certain social behaviors by providing cognitive or emotional appeals intended to influence what is considered “normal”. In addition to the direct effects of these campaigns it has been argued that media, by changing the social acceptability of a behavior and influencing the direction of public policy, influence the social behavior indirectly through institutional changes enacted by policymakers.
Indirect Effects Of Media?
According to third-person and hostile media perspectives in mass communication, media influence can also occur on the basis of the expectation individuals have of the effects of mass media on others. For example, Gunther et al. (2006) have suggested that adolescents’ smoking behavior is predicted not only by their exposure to smoking-related media content but more importantly by the perceived (not the actual) prevalence of smoking among their peers, which is a function of their likely exposure to smoking-related content. It appears then that being exposed to smoking-related content makes an adolescent more likely to smoke not only because of the direct persuasive effects of these messages, but also and mostly through a presumed influence process in which we judge the media will influence others, so our perception of what is the norm is altered.
This presumed influence is precisely what the social norm intervention approach has in mind when it relies on correcting misperceptions about social norms in order to affect behaviors. Based on the notion of pluralistic ignorance, i.e., the misperception that a disproportionate number of people engage in certain behaviors or hold certain beliefs, the social norms approach seeks to change certain behaviors that are considered risky by providing information about the “true” norm. For example, regarding alcohol consumption among US college students, there is evidence that despite how prevalent this behavior is, most students will actually overestimate the alcohol consumption of their peers and this overestimation ultimately affects their consumption. Working on this logic, certain communication campaigns that have sought to correct the misperception by providing information about “true” norms have been successful in reducing both pluralistic ignorance on the subject and alcohol consumption (Smith et al. 2006).
Beyond this realm of risky behaviors, media representations of social reality can affect our perceptions of current public opinion and in doing so alter the composition or expression of certain opinions, which ultimately may impact the political process (Mutz 1998). Beliefs about the relative prevalence of an opinion that result from the assumption of impersonal media influence can provide important cues about the social environment and local context. In fact, it has been argued that people are often exposed to perspectives and behavioral norms via mass media that they would not encounter through their interpersonal relationship, especially as they relate to the consumption of information and consumer products (Schor 1998).
More fundamentally, the perception of the climate of opinion and associated judgments about the likelihood of people expressing those opinions have been linked to individual willingness to speak out, with individuals less inclined to talk if they believe others who share their views are silent (Glynn et al. 1997). Inferences based on journalists’ presentations of the contending positions on an issue can influence perceived norms and the nature of the response by the perceiver (Gunther & Storey 2003).
With the emergence of computer-mediated communications, the influence of climates of opinion in interpersonal opinion expression persist (Price et al. 2006) and new domains for the cultivation of social norms appear. Williams (2006), for example, provides evidence of how online role playing cultivates fear of crime in the online domain. The development of social norms in online environments and their implications for social perceptions and behaviors are an emerging domain of research interest.
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