Same same but different: Social norms and the brain

(In case you missed North Korea’s cheerleaders performing at this year’s Olympics, check them out!)

Maybe you’re one of those urbanites who thinks you would never vote for a conservative or even right-wing party (e.g., the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany or the Front national in France) – even if you lived in, say, a rural area in what used to be East Germany instead of Berlin, Germany’s leftist capital. You may think that giving your vote to such outlandish politicians could never happen to you, because you have values which are more or less independent of living in one place or another.

Yet if you happen to have lived in different parts of a country, you may know that the political climate can be vastly different across regions. In Germany for instance, the left party gets sturdy support from the Berliners, but large parts of the country only sneer at the leftists and support the party so little, that it is not even represented in their local state parliament. The same strong political discrepancy exists between the urban and rural parts of the United States. So, who knows what you would do, if you were surrounded by people with completely different attitudes from you…

These situational forces dominating individuals’ behavior and beliefs are no news to social psychologists, and political opinions are just one of many examples (like what to wear, how to speak, what to eat) revealing what you do is strongly shaped by your surroundings. What is particularly fascinating is the confidence with which we (and our group) often hold these opinions, and how hard it sometimes is to imagine a reasonable other with a differing opinion (imagine for instance someone who believes dogs are a delicacy, or a grown woman painting her cheeks in Jasmine-yellow to look more beautiful). Just as Westerners are dumbfounded by such peculiarities, non-Westerners may be shocked by the libertine mating and dating behavior or fondness of pungent-smelling, mold-bearing cheese found across parts of Europe, North America and Australia.

Similarly, classical social psychology experiments like the Stanford prison experiment or the Milgram experiment became famous by showing that people can be manipulated to inflict great harm on others, to the extent that they deliver what they believe to be deadly shocks! But still, when people are told about the obedience and conformity observed in these studies, they vehemently reject the notion that they could be among those tricked into becoming such brainless sheep – who blindly follow orders, apparently without thinking twice.

Women in Myanmar wear long dresses and yellowish Thanaka paste on their cheeks, a cosmetic cream made from ground bark which is used for aesthetic purposes and as sun protection.

The brain and social norms

How does the brain process social norms? And can brain stimulation rig how people deal with social norms? Indeed, researchers demonstrated that individuals can be manipulated to conform more or less to social norms by noninvasive brain stimulation: The researchers applied a kind of electric stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation to a brain area in the front of your head called the right lateral prefrontal cortex. This frontal area of your brain is involved in many executive functions such as decision making, reasoning, or focusing your attention.

The exciting new finding of this experiment was that sanction-based norm compliance (i.e., where non-compliance was punished) was significantly increased when enhancing the excitability of this brain area through stimulation. On the other hand, voluntary norm compliance was reduced through this stimulation. That suggests that our compliance to norms causally depends on this frontal brain activity. Interestingly, the beliefs of the participants about what the norm prescribes and what the expected sanctions are, remained unaltered during stimulation.

Brain stimulation.

Other cultures don’t only have differing social norms but also differ with respect to the strength of the social norms. In China for instance the compliance with norms is seen as more important, and violation of norms as more problematic, than in Western countries such as the U.S.. As one would expect from this observation, there are also similarities and differences in brain activity in response to social norm violations across cultures.

For example, a recent study showed that both Americans and Chinese showed a specific event-related potential over the central and parietal brain regions in response to social norm violations. An event-related potential is in this case a brain response that is the direct result of the detection of a social norm violation, that occurred 400 ms after the norm violation (and is thus also called N400). However, Chinese subjects additionally showed the N400 over frontal and temporal brain regions. This is intriguing, because these regions are associated with reasoning and problem solving skills, as well as social skills such as taking the perspective of others. The researchers thus conclude that while individuals from both cultures display the same brain response to detecting social norm violations, Chinese participants additionally infer the mental state of the norm violator. This is also in line with the behavioral result that Chinese are better perspective takers than Americans.

More generally, the capacity to establish and enforce norms seems to be enabled by a domain-general mechanism opposed to specialized cognitive modules evolved for exactly this purpose. For instance, the brain areas associated with learning the value of certain behavior (i.e., the ventral frontostriatal network including ventromedial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum), like learning that wearing make-up earns you compliments, have been found to be implicated in norm compliance.

Moreover, areas known to be active when detecting threats (i.e., dorsal frontostriatal circuitry including the dorsal striatum and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), and experiencing feelings like anger, sadness or disgust (i.e., amygdala and insula) are involved. Last but not least, and unsurprisingly, brain areas related to social skills like mentalizing and taking the perspective of others (i.e., medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction and posterior cingulate) are contributing. Thus, a whole orchestra of brain areas is involved in dealing with social norms.

The perks and perils of norm compliance

Judging by the twitter comments to the cheerleader clip, norm-compliance (i.e., conformity) is often viewed critically. And justifiably so, there are very dark sides to conformity. A common example is the conformity of the German people to the Nazi regime, but also the huge problem of bullying at schools. Earlier this year the Chinese government banned George Orwell’s classical works “nineteen eighty-four” and “Animal farm”, which are both critical of the empowerment of a small elite who enforce conformity of the people through oppression and punishment. Given the power of conformity, such an act by China seems highly problematic and illustrates that seizing power through sanction-based norm compliance is still a prominent political tool today.


George Orwell’s classical dystopian novel “nineteen eighty-four” portrays a totalitarian surveillance state.

However, taking into account others’ opinions is often helpful, especially when there is a lot of uncertainty involved about what the right behavior in a given situation is. Imagine for instance, that you want to buy a new laptop. Presumably, you will first consult the Amazon online community to check whether the nice slim one you saw in the commercial actually lives up to its’ expectations. In line with this, subjects of a recent experiment were asked whether they would buy certain Amazon products given ratings by others, where the number of ratings and the average rating were manipulated. This study showed that people actually integrate social information based on its reliability (in this case, reliability is based on how many others behave a certain way, but it is also conceivable that reliability is higher for experts than for laypeople). Relatedly to the perks of taking into account social information – illustrated in this trivial example of online shopping – there are of course also many examples for the upsides of social norms: from actual laws (“do not murder”) to unwritten cooperative norms (“be fair”).

What to take from this?

There is no doubt that we are heavily influenced by others, and this seems to be a deeply entrenched human trait – children as young as three years already respond to norm violations! But don’t despair, adhering to social norms is neither solely evil nor shameful. Although the mechanism can be misused, it is in fact often helpful or in fact even necessary in order to allow us to navigate through the unpredictable and complex situations that we encounter. And after all, we are no mere marionettes who are doomed to the fate predefined by our cultures and society; Instead, we have the ability to think critically.

While it seems crucial to remind ourselves to regularly challenge our own and others’ beliefs and behavior (especially if we are in the position to do so by our qualification or expertise), it may be equally important to acknowledge our own ignorance and keep in mind that we are in many situations utterly dependent on others for guidance.

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