Are Imaginary Social Norms Increasing School Violence?

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Part of the price we pay for living in a civilized society is that our daily decisions are subject to the influence of social norms. These beliefs about social acceptability not only keep middle-aged men from dressing like Justin Beiber, they can influence behaviors that affect a person’s health, academic performance, or likelihood of voting.

Where things get tricky is that the term “social norm” can refer to two different norms. The first norm is what you would get if you averaged the individual attitudes of every person in the group. For now let’s call this the “real” norm. The second norm is what people perceive the real norm to be. Let’s call this the “perceived” norm. While the real norm is based on people’s actual beliefs, the perceived norm is based on their beliefs about everyone else’s beliefs.

Outside of issues with a lot of public polling, the real norm generally remains unknown. The result is that the real norm and the perceived norm don’t always align, and in cases where the real norm would have exerted a more positive influence on society these inaccruate perceptions can have negative consequences. For example, college students tend to believe other students drink and condone drinking more than they actually do. These beliefs ultimately lead to more drinking. Researchers have found men make a similar error when it comes to norms about sexual consent. That is, they tend to underestimate the importance of consent in the minds of other men.

new study suggests that violence in schools is yet another problem where inaccurate perceptions of social norms are having negative consequences. The research examined two cohorts of Chicago 6th graders (over 1,600 kids) whose schools took part in the CDC Multisite Violence Prevention Project. Students were surveyed on their attitudes about violence and their beliefs about the attitudes of others. Results showed that students consistently overestimated the degree to which others condoned aggression, while at the same time underestimating the degree to which others supported nonviolent problem-solving strategies. Students overestimated the social acceptability of violence regardless of gender, ethnicity, or aggression level, and the discrepancy remained through 8th grade. It’s difficult to know the exact effects of these inaccurate beliefs, but it seems obvious that at the margin they lead to an uptick in violence.

Though the tangible costs of this violence make the findings somewhat depressing, the silver lining is that the study uncovers some potentially lower hanging fruit in the effort to decrease school violence. In general, there are two norm-based ways to lower violence. One strategy is to change real norms by altering students’ personal beliefs about violence. The problem with this strategy is that changing a student’s moral beliefs can be incredibly difficult. A 13-year-old who learned from his older brother that it’s acceptable to punch a guy if he flirts with your girlfriend is probably not going to change his mind because a teacher says otherwise.

The other norm-based way to decrease violence is to change perceived norms. Often this is difficult because the beliefs you want to impart don’t reflect reality. For instance, attempting to convince a group of 5th graders that their classmates dont’ like soda and junk food. However, when you’re trying to convince kids to believe something real — in this case, that other kids are less accepting of violence — it ought to be easier.

As an extreme example, imagine one group of students who each believe violence is terrible and that everybody else believes it’s great, and a second group of students who each believe violence is great and that everybody else also thinks its great. If you then try and convince both groups that the existing norm is one of nonviolence, you’re probably going to have more success with the first group. Obviously the reality of the situation is more nuanced, but in general it ought to be easier to convince people of a norm when that norm more closely reflects how they actually feel.

Compared to changing core beliefs or persuading students to believe a lie, convincing students to believe in a real norm seems like a good option. None of this is to say that teaching kids what others believe will be easy. In fact, norm-awareness interventions that aim to curb alcohol consumption and energy use have had mixed results. Still, all things considered, the study points a relatively promising way forward in the fight to curb school violence.
Henry, D., Dymnicki, A., Schoeny, M., Meyer, A., Martin, N., & , . (2013). Middle school students overestimate normative support for aggression and underestimate normative support for nonviolent problem-solving strategies Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43 (2), 433-445 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2013.01027.x


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