Insight & Research

August 11, 2017

Norms Bias

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Everyone’s doing it. We take our cue from the people around us. Fitting in with what everyone else does feels comfortable and natural.

Written by Carol McNaughton Nicholls, Director, Insight & Research

On the surface not the most exciting of heuristics. But dig a little deeper – norms are fundamental to understanding culture. Because norms are invisible, powerful, dynamic and shape all of our day to day lives.

Invisible. In his classic text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman spoke of how we play predefined roles, to make sense of who we are and how we interact with others. For society to function, everyone has to understand implicitly the role they play in a given context, in a complex choreography we take for granted. We don’t really ‘see’ these norms, but they are powerful.

Powerful because it is these norms and an amazing ability to understand, decode, play and adapt to the normative script expected, in different circumstances, that make up who we appear to be.

So norms shape identities, aspirations, how we behave, act, do, buy. For example, at Truth we often research financial behaviour. Setting a careful weekly budget for socialising isn’t new for young people, but now we find they are using Monzo as a tool to do so.  Monzo has tapped very successfully into a norm among this demographic: the careful granular weekly budget and need to separate their spending in a simple tool, and has created a new norm, as young people increasingly recognise and respect each other for using it as their tool of choice.

But the complexity of norms is that they are also dynamic – they can be resisted, formed, changed – we are both shaped by the norms around us, and shape them through our actions. Norms are also transformative – if we ask consumers what they will do in the future, they often cannot really answer – because a lot of this will depend on the norms that develop around them.  Recently I was speaking to people about technology and they said they were once resistant to having the internet on their phone, but now couldn’t live without it. It is a new norm.

It is for all of these reasons that identifying and making visible the norms all around us – how they differ across groups, in various settings and cultures, and how they evolve – is vitally important to really understand consumer behaviour and the adoption of future innovations.

Unlike some aspects of behaviour, we cannot identify norms through observation alone – we also need to get closer to the sub-conscious – why do people do what they do, what are the narratives and ‘scripts’ that underpin their routine, rituals and interactions every day?

None of us are free from norms – we are all wearing our normative masks, dancing an interpretive dance of how we subconsciously know we should behave in specific settings and contexts.

Culture is made – created – by norms, as well as being an agent of norm creation, through individual actions and change over time. So norms are fundamental to understanding consumer behaviour and a symbiotic aspect of being human and interacting with others.

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