Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford


  • Yan WangEmail author
  • Junjie Liang
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1084-1



Norms are expectations stating that something should or must be the case or socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave. From a sociological perspective, social norms are informal understandings that govern the behavior of members of a society.

Norms have obtained a great deal of attention in the social sciences, such as anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology. This article will introduce this item from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Two main topics will be touched in this review: the emergence of evolutionary social norms and the social norms-marketing campaign resulting from the connection between social norms and behaviors.

The Emergence of Evolutionary Social Norms

Being different from the institutional norms, which are formed and enforced by certain individuals (usually the leader of group) or institutions, and voluntary norms, which emerge by the voluntary agreement among group members, the evolutionary norms and the measures for their fulfillment are not explicitly stated (Karl-Dieter 1982). The emergence of evolutionary norms has been described by several models, among which the emergence of cooperative and altruistic behaviors have been discussed and explored extensively.

The Kin Selection Model

Developed from a biological approach, the Kin selection model indicated that the degree of genetic relationship played an important role in predicting the selection of altruistic behaviors. According to the genetic relationships of the organisms involved, the altruistic behaviors could be explained in terms of natural selection: the organism would provide help to their relatively close kin in order to ensure the successful delivery of their genes. The kin-selection model predicted that altruistic behaviors depended much on the degree of kinship between giver and receiver.

One study (Rachlin and Jones 2008) indicated individuals would give significantly more money for the benefits of their relatives than for the benefits of nonrelatives at almost every social distance. These results were in line with kin-selection theory and supported the important role of genetic relationship in individual’s altruistic behaviors.

However, the kin-selection model cannot explain why individuals show cooperative behaviors toward strangers in some cases. It is obvious that strangers could not be helpful for the organism’s reproductive success. Another model of “reciprocal altruism” (Trivers 1971) was proposed to explain this phenomenon.

The “Reciprocal Altruism” Model

According to models of “reciprocal altruism” (Trivers 1971), the chance of evolving for the altruistic behaviors was little in random pairings. However, the evolving chance would increase in a social framework because individuals could benefit from building reputations of being altruistic to other, which would be beneficial to those who perform altruistic behaviors in the long run. Consequently, the altruistic behaviors would also be favored by natural selection in such cases. In the models, Trivers (1971) discussed three instances of altruistic behaviors – behavior involved in cleaning symbioses, warning cries in birds, and human reciprocal altruism – and further explained their evolutionary mechanisms. As for the human reciprocal altruism, Trivers suggested that “friendship, dislike, moralistic aggression, gratitude, sympathy, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt, and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy” could be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system. Each individual human was seen as possessing altruistic and cheating tendencies at the same time, the expression of which was “sensitive to developmental variables that are selected to set the tendencies as a balance appropriate to the local and ecological environment.” According to Trivers, by properly identifying the other agents in a social framework reputation could influence behaviors of the agent: people who show altruistic behaviors would be treated altruistically and people with a reputation of being indifferent would be treated indifferently. Trivers’ opinions have been supported empirically by research (Griskevicius et al. 2010).

Simulating the Emergence of Evolutionary Social Norms with Play Games

Based on the Nash equilibrium, quite a few play games were developed to explore the emergence of social norms, especially the cooperative and altruistic behaviors.

By simulating the norms game and the metanorms game, Axelrod (1986) explored the dynamical processes of the social norms formation. Based on the simulation of norm games, he further proposed the mechanisms that served to support the partially established norms such as metanorms, dominance, internalization, deterrence, social proof, membership, law, and reputation. Among the eight mechanisms, Axelrod suggested that reputation and dominance could serve in the origin and content of norms. Axelrod stated “Dominance can work because if only a few very powerful actors want to promote a certain pattern of behavior, their punishment alone can often be sufficient to establish it, even if the others are not vengeful against defections.” Actually this conclusion can be confirmed that many norms complied with by people in daily life served the powerful. In line with Trivers’ model (Trivers 1971), Axelrod (1986) also believed reputation was an important mechanism of social norms emergence, especially the cooperative or altruistic behaviors.

With the Trust Game, which is role-contingent and like one-sided Prisoner’s dilemma, Bicchieri et al. (2004) simulated the emergence of trust and reciprocation. Their study showed as a result of the repeating interaction of several different strategies, which were conditional ones, the norms of trust/reciprocation could come into being and became the dominant observed behavior. This research enriches Trivers’ model by describing the emergence of trust/reciprocation based on several, but not single, behavioral strategies.

Skyrms (1996) and Alexander (2007) explored the norms emergence from the cognitive and structured interactions approaches. With a variety of play games, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Stag Hunt, Divide the Dollar, and the Ultimatum Game, they described how the moral norms came into being under different game situations. Both of them emphasized the simpler mechanisms or leaning rules, such as “imitate the best” or best response, in the different norm-formation games. They pointed out agents would rely on their learning rules to select the appropriate strategy. Being different with the model of Bicchieri and his colleagues, who emphasized the several strategies, Skyrms and Alexander believed norms were developed on the basis of single strategy. It is noticeable that both of them emphasized the role of structured interaction in the norms formation and they made some refinement on this structural approach by differentiating two different kinds of networks: interaction network and update network.

The Spread of Social Norms

How do the social norms spread and change in real life?A vast literature support that social norms are communicated through social interaction. For example, face to face communication constitutes an important approach for the formation and spread of norms (Chwe 2001). Being consistent with Sherif’s group norm theory, which states that social norms of prejudice “are the products of contact with members of a group; they are standardized and become common property within a group,” one study (Monteith et al. 1996) indicated that participants’ prejudiced opinions concerning gay men and blacks decreased significantly under the activation of non-prejudiced opinions made by a confederate.

In addition, Paluck (2009) emphasized that individuals could shape and were shaped as well by their immediate social surroundings, “alone, people become aware of ideas…in groups they [become] aware of other people’s awareness [and] … their endorsement creates another vector of social influence.” His study (Paluck 2009) suggested the group listening to an emotionally engaging radio drama could result in the change and spread of social norms due to its socially interactive nature. Paluck believed the heated discussion during and after the radio drama listening “creates another vector of social influence” on listeners and “contributed further to socially shared cognition, which is the basis for a social norm.”

The Influence of Social Norms on Individual’s Social Behaviors

A variety of research supported the influence of individual’s normative beliefs on their social behaviors, or in other words, social norms spurred individual’s conforming behaviors.

For example, a cross-cultural study (Zou et al. 2009) proved social norms, or the perceived cultural consensus, could powerfully predict individual’s social judgement. A current research (McGuire et al. 2017) explored the influences of group norms on the behavior of resource allocation among children with an age from 8 to 16 years. The result indicated that participants showed the most ingroup-biased resource allocation under the condition of both the ingroup and outgroup peer norms being competitive. In addition, with years when allocating intergroup resources individuals could consider both ingroup and outgroup norms simultaneously. However, only older children changed their reasoning to justify their allocation according to group norms.

In addition according to the information, delivering social norms can be classified to different types, such as descriptive norms, injunctive norms, and situational norms. Different social norms could make particular effects on the individual’s social behaviors.

By informing individuals of what behavior is appropriate or adaptive in certain situation, descriptive norms, which refer to how most people behave in a specific situation (Cialdini et al. 1991), could guide individual’s private and public behaviors as well. With two experiments study, Goldstein et al. (2008) indicated descriptive norms could effectively motivate participants to engage in the activities of environmental conservation. Especially when people were confronted with threat or danger, they would be motivated significantly to go along with the social environment (Griskevicius et al. 2006).

In addition to the descriptive norms, the focus theory (Cialdini et al. 1991) proposed another type of social information called injunctive norms, which refer to the individual’s perceived degree of social approval /disapproval for certain behavior. According to focus theory, the two types of norms are highly relevant to different fundamental human goals. The information provided by descriptive norm is highly relevant to the intrapersonal goal of behaving accurately or choosing correctly. However, the injunctive norm is especially relevant to the interpersonal goal of establishing and maintaining good social relationship by winning the social approval. The main hypotheses above of focus theory have been supported by the empirical evidence (Jacobson et al. 2011).

Another type of social norms is the situation norms, which refer to “knowledge or mental representations of appropriate behavior that guide behavior in a certain situation or environment” (Aarts and Dijksterhuis 2003). With three experiments, the study (Aarts and Dijksterhuis 2003) suggested that not all situational norms were able to guide individual’s social behavior directly. Only those well-established situational norms, which can be regarded as associations between specific situations and normative behavior in memory, could effectively play the role of activating the normal behaviors under certain situations.

Finally, the emotion also plays a role in the connection between social norms and individual’s compliant behaviors.

One study (Colombo 2014) explored the role of emotion in motivating social norm compliance. Contrary with resentment hypothesis (Sugden 1998) and hedonistic hypothesis (Fehr and Camerer 2007), Colombo believed that caring, but not resentment and pleasure, might be the source of feeling emotions and the ultimate motive of norm compliance. On the other way, social norms can also make an effect on people’s feeling, such as regret. Based on the classic action-effect, which described the phenomenon that individuals regretted actions resulting in negative outcomes more than they did inactions bringing about the same negative outcomes (Kahneman and Tversky 1982), a recent research (Feldman and Albarracín 2017) supported that “negative outcomes resulting from action are regretted more than when resulting from inaction.” With four experiments, their study indicated when social norms were for inaction the action-effect was much stronger and the action-effect would be weakened and even reversed in case of the social norms were for action.

The Social-Norm Marketing Campaign

A large number of programs, which were called social-norms marketing campaign, have been carried out based on the two consistent conclusions: most people tend to overestimate the prevalence of many destructive behaviors, and individuals usually use their perceived norms as a standard to guide their own behaviors. By delivering the normative information that the occurrence of deleterious behaviors is less than most people think, this campaign aims at correcting people’s misperceptions and reducing the occurrence of undesirable conducts, such as excessive drinking, drug abusing, disordered eating, and littering and waste of resources.

Based on social norms-based social marketing campaign, most interventions decreased the level of alcohol consumption (Neighbors et al. 2004) and gambling addiction (Neighbors et al. 2015) on campus successfully. However some research (Granfield 2005) failed to confirm the effectiveness of this approach.

One study (Schultz et al. 2007) provided a potential explanation for the mixed results of the intervention programs. Their research (Schultz et al. 2007) demonstrated delivering high-energy-consuming households with descriptive normative information about the average level of home energy usage in the neighborhood significantly decreased energy consumption. On the contrary, the same information resulted in an improvement of energy consumption for low-energy-consuming households. However, when combing the descriptive normative information with an injunctive message of approval, the low-energy-consumption family would decrease their consumption at the desirable low rate, rather than increasing significantly toward the mean.


The emergence of evolutionary social norms has been explained and explored extensively. In addition to the models of “kin selection” and “reciprocal altruism,” other models were developed by simulating the forming process with different play games. Social norms can be spread by face to face communicating and social media as well. A vast amount of literature supported that social norms could spur individual’s complying behaviors. By correcting individual’s misperception of social norms, quite a lot interventions called social norms-marketing campaign have been carried out to reduce individual’s deviant behaviors although the specific mechanisms still await for further exploration.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fudan UniversityShanghaiChina

Section editors and affiliations

  • Menelaos Apostolou
    • 1
  1. 1.University of NicosiaNicosiaCyprus