Skip Navigation

Social Norms Change

From the standpoint of behavioral theory, social norms change means correcting people’s misperceptions of the extent to which their peers participate in a certain behavior. This theory assumes that peer pressure is the primary influence on shaping people’s behavior, and that many behaviors are influenced by incorrect perceptions of how peers think and act. A classic example of this, according to Alan Berkowitz, is that young adults tend to think that their peers drink alcohol at rates much higher than they actually do, and thus decide to drink more themselves. Social norms change in this example would entail teaching young adults the true rates at which their peers drink alcohol. Another example relevant to sexual violence would be if college men thought it was more common than it actually is to use alcohol or other drugs to get people to have sex with them, and thus thought it was acceptable for them to do so.

Social norms change has also taken on a broader meaning in common usage, referring to creating community-level change regarding which attitudes and behaviors are socially acceptable. In relation to sexual and intimate partner violence, social norms change in this broader sense aims to identify and modify commonly accepted attitudes and beliefs that support sexual and intimate partner violence. This kind of change can be difficult to achieve, as many social norms that support sexual and partner violence are deeply ingrained, such as sexist attitudes, commodification of sex and objectification of women, and a tendency for authorities to ‘turn the other cheek’ to assailants.

The bystander intervention approach has several connections to social norms change:

  • Many bystander intervention programs hope to change social norms around tolerance of rape-supportive attitudes and of sexual assault and other types of violence.
  • Social norms that approve or disapprove of intervening may influence whether individuals decide to intervene in potentially harmful situations.

Annotated bibliography and other resources:

Research connecting social norms to rape proclivity:

Effects of perceived norms on bystander intervention: