What is Norm Theory?

Norm theory is basically a way of trying to understand how culture affects human behaviour. While the fact that culture must affect behaviour in some way is pretty well generally accepted, it is another matter to understand the structure of that influence, and the pathways through which it operates.

A number of interesting studies have been done recently which are starting to explore these interactions, such as a study by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale (The Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus, see below for citation), which found that people are more likely to support scientific opinions according to how consistent that opinion is with their world view. However studies to date have not made much progress in understanding what the structure of culture is and which element might be affecting our thinking. This is where I hope Norm Theory might be able to play a part.

The intention is not, of course, to try to systematically analyse and understand all of culture and its interactions. That is a task which is probably beyond anyone; well beyond me at least. The intention is to see if it is possible to identify with some confidence a single aspect of human culture, and trace its influence on the choices we make. The aspect I think has good potential for analysis is what I term a cultural norm, by which I mean a norm of acceptable behaviour. A good place to start might be with my working definition of what a cultural norm is:

A widely accepted idea within a social group that sets parameters for acceptable behaviour, which people act upon either consciously or unconsciously.

If a shared human thought such as that described above could be shown to have a measurable effect on behaviour which is proportionate to the degree to which an individual has internalised it, then perhaps we could take a small step towards having a concrete understanding of the structure of how humans conceive and use culture. To be clear, I am not claiming that cultural norms will explain everything or be at the root of all key human actions, which are obviously the result of many processes both internal and external to the human mind. Nonetheless I do believe that, if proven, this will provide a useful way to view and analyse human behaviour.

With Norm Theory I hope to be able to describe and demonstrate a mechanism by which culturally held beliefs and ideas affect human actions in a predictable and repeatable way. This concept is the foundation for the avenues of research which I am pursuing and forms the basis for the research design I am currently working on. I hope that this will lead to new ways for human behaviour to be understood, and perhaps influenced to achieve positive outcomes in health and other areas.




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