by By Saul McLeod published 2008
There are many ways that people can influence our behavior, but perhaps one of the most important is that the presence of others seems to set up expectations
We do not expect people to behave randomly but to behave in certain ways in particular situations. Each social situation entails its own particular set of expectations about the “proper” way to behave. Such expectations can vary from group to group.
One way in which these expectations become apparent is when we look at the roles that people play in society.
Social roles are the part people play as members of a social group. With each social role you adopt, your behavior changes to fit the expectations both you and others have of that role.
In the words of William Shakespeare:
All the worlds a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits, and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
These lines capture the essence of social roles. Think of how many roles you play in a single day, e.g. son, daughter, sister, brother, students, worker, friend etc. Each social role carries expected behaviors called norms.
Social Norms are unwritten rules about how to behave. They provide us with an expected idea of how to behave in a particular social group or culture. For example we expect students to arrive to lesson on time and complete their work.
The idea of norms provides a key to understanding social influence in general and conformity in particular. Social norms are the accepted standards of behavior of social groups.
These groups range from friendship and work groups to nation states. Behavior which fulfills these norms is called conformity, and most of the time roles and norms are powerful ways of understanding and predicting what people will do.
There are norms defining appropriate behavior for every social group. For example, students, neighbors and patients in a hospital are all aware of the norms governing behavior. And as the individual moves from one group to another, their behavior changes accordingly.
Norms provide order in society. It is difficult to see how human society could operate without social norms. Human beings need norms to guide and direct their behavior, to provide order and predictability in social relationships and to make sense of and understanding of each other’s actions. These are some of the reasons why most people, most of the time, conform to social norms.
There is considerable pressure to conform to social roles. Social roles provide an example of social influence in general and conformity in particular. Most of us, most of the time, conform to the guidelines provided by the roles we perform.
We conform to the expectations of others, we respond to their approval when we play our roles well, and to their disapproval when we play our roles badly. But how far will conformity go? Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment illustrates the power of social roles in relation to conformity.
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Social Roles. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/social-roles.html