The Complexity of Social Norms

Part of the series Computational Social Sciences pp 11-36


Misperception Is Reality: The “Reign of Error” About Peer Risk Behaviour Norms Among Youth and Young Adults

  • H. Wesley PerkinsAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology and Sociology, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Email author 

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This chapter examines the possibility and prevalence of group members misperceiving the norms of their social group and the implications of this perceptual “error” for personal actions that are presumed to be influenced by these norms. The chapter focuses the theoretical discussion and review of empirical literature regarding misperceived norms on one broad topic area of applied research that has gained significant research attention in recent decades—specifically, norms about risk-related behaviours among youth and young adults. After an initial review the social science research demonstrating substantial discrepancies between actual and perceived norms for risk behaviour, four questions are addressed. First, to what extent are perceived norms empirically predictive of personal risk-related behaviours of adolescents and young adults. Second, what do these correlations look like independent of and in comparison with the association between actual norms and personal behaviour across populations? Third, what produces these misperceptions? And fourth, can misperceptions be corrected or altered by revealing accurate peer norms within the social group and do such interventions produce empirically measureable change in perceived norms and individual behaviour? The chapter concludes with discussion of emerging research on perceived norms that attempts to identify under what conditions perceived norms are most influential in determining personal behaviour.