Exploring Social Norms…or How I Failed in ROTC (part 2)

Exploring Social Norms…or How I Failed in ROTC (part 2)


Journey of Social Norms in Business

In my last post, we took a little journey through the world of social norms. Unfortunately, like most of my journeys, it involved me doing something embarrassing. So let us now continue by looking at the power of social norms to create the kind of behavior your organization wants.

Human beings are social creatures…and yes that even includes most developers. We are designed to live in a world of social interaction. Our brains are massive pattern recognition engines trained for this sort of thing. We live in groups that expect certain behavior in certain situations to follow certain patterns. We can’t function without these norms. They give our behavior context and allow others to efficiently assess, judge and respond. However, you might surprised just how incredibly subtle yet powerful these can be.

The Milgram experiment is (in)famous for many reasons. This is the experiment where participants were asked to give electric “shocks” to another person to help them “learn.” It turns out that people are really really pliable. Normal people were convinced to administer lethal electric shocks of 450 volts to a complete stranger while they howled in agony screaming for them to stop. As terrifying as that is, that is not the most amazing part of the experiment.

What is more terrifying is how much the participants did NOT want to do this! As you watch the films and read the transcripts, the participants (the shock-givers) are visibly shaken and clearly upset. They cannot believe that they are actually doing this. It is scary how little prodding it actually took. These were not vulnerable people being ordered by their boss or drill sergeant. They were responding to a man in a white coat at Yale politely saying, “Please continue.” To me, that is the amazing part.

Some explain this result using social conformity. This is where a person transfers decision making to the group at large. According to researchers like Muzafer Sherif and Solomon Asch, people can embrace social norms without even weighing the costs or benefits to themselves or the group. Some game theorists assert this is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time.

AdamJBurton_Small-300x300But how can that be true?

People are supposed to be self-interested and rational. If social norms were creating sub-optimal outcomes, there be would course corrections and those norms would change…right? Not always. Sometimes rational actors can create irrational behavior.

Like a dollar auction where participants pay $5 for a $1 bill. The Tragedy of the Commons is another example. All this assumes people are rational; a belief I question every holiday shopping season. Once emotions and social pressure get added to the mix, it is easy to create less desirable outcomes.

Let’s look at an example where norms lead a group astray. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (@DanielKahneman) found that people feel a stronger emotional reaction to bad outcomes when it was caused by something they did, rather than something they avoided doing. This is why I cannot sell my 90 million shares of Webvan. What if I sold them and then they went up? (Hey, it could happen! I’m looking at you Kickstarter.) But this phenomenon helps explain why most people are so risk averse and reluctant to change.

Now perhaps you have heard the phrase, “bias towards action?” This phrase doesn’t seem to make sense given what we just talked about. How can people be predisposed to action and more likely to avoid action? Because there is a bias towards only when action is considered the “normal” response. For example, if there is a crisis, there is an expectation that politicians should “do something.” Even if the correct response is to “do nothing,” they feel pressure to act. By doing so they often make matters worse, triggering yet more pressure to act, which makes things even worse…and the mobius strip continues.

The same pressure to act exists for goalkeepers in professional soccer. I cite this next study because it shows the power of social norms to drive sub-optimal behavior. I also cite this study because professional soccer goalkeepers – who are judged in part by their ability to stop penalty kicks – should be highly motivated to make the right decisions. They are also highly experienced in this particular domain. This is as real-world as it gets.

The study, called Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers, was published in October 2007 in the Journal of Economic Psychology. They reviewed penalty kicks in top leagues and championships worldwide. For those who aren’t soccer fans, penalty kicks are tough to stop under any circumstances; about 80% of penalty kicks succeed. Sports Science has a fascinating breakdown of the penalty kick:

Given the rules of soccer and the mathematics of human reflexes (which isn’t generally considered by people who engage in arsenal or liverpool betting, but perhaps it should be!), goalkeepers have to “guess” before the ball is kicked which way they want to block. The study concluded that the optimal strategy was to stay in the goal’s center, (i.e. “do nothing”.) As a side note: I have suggested to both my boss and my wife that my optimal strategy should also be to do nothing. So far, there are no takers.

However, goalkeepers almost never stay in the center. Even though there are three roughly equal choices (right, left, center), they choose “doing nothing” only about 2% of the time. How is that possible? Because the social norm is for goalkeepers to “do something.” Maybe it’s all the Pointer Sisters’ music they play during practice, but goalkeepers feel pressure to jump.

After all, they don’t get paid just to stand there. No, they get paid to stop goals. But social norms aren’t allowing them to do that as effectively as they could. In fact, goalkeepers actually feel worse when they miss a penalty kick after staying in the center then when they incorrectly jump to one side. Without even knowing it, the social norms of the sport are causing teams to lose games they could have won.

Of course, most social norms are not bad. They make civilized society possible and they enforce all kinds of great behavior. It’s the reason we tip at restaurants we will never revisit. It is why we queue in lines instead of cutting. It’s why simply seeing a picture of someone’s eyes reduces theft. It’s why we wear the clothes we do. (That’s my excuse!) In a future post, I want to talk about open-source in terms of social norms.

But can all this social norming stuff actually help your organization get things done?

Absolutely and in real measurable ways. In the final post of this series, we will look at an amazing case study. Not in theory, but a real-world example of using the power of social norms (plus some courage and conviction) to transform into a world-class organization.

Social norms can create the behavior you want and reduce the behavior you don’t. We know that it is pretty easy to induce normative behavior. Granted, making that change long lasting is a tougher challenge. We also know that you can create the wrong set of norms, which in turn, drive the wrong set of results.

But normative behavior can also free up other organizational assets. You spend less on training, less on security, improve employee retention and morale. Why? Because you are letting the unwritten conventions of your organization guide the work. This is a human equivalent to Ruby’s “convention over coding” mantra.

You don’t have to fix as many bugs in production if quality is in the air from the minute your developer walks in the door. When information sharing is who you are, you don’t have to force extract it from reluctant employees. Assuming you have the courage to allow your “goalkeepers” to “do nothing,” you will win more games.

Next post: we look at an organization that did just that and how you can too.