Exploring Social Norms…or How I Failed in ROTC (part 3)

Exploring Social Norms…or How I Failed in ROTC (part 3)

AdamJBurton_Small-300x300Over the last couple of posts, I’ve tried to convince you that social norms can be an effective tool for your organization. Why? They create an environment where behavior becomes self-policing and “normal” behavior is reinforced from within. Furthermore, research and experience has shown us that social norming can create just about any behavior pattern you want, good or bad. In this post of the series, I want present an extreme example of using social norms for positive change.

In 2006, the University of Virginia opened the National Social Norms Institute (NSNI). The stated goal of the institute is to research and evaluate the use of social norming to address issues in at-risk populations. The NSNI has demonstrated success for this approach in a number of areas, including: tobacco and alcohol use, DUI prevention, intimate partner violence and academic performance. Though they have primarily focused on college populations, they have case studies for other groups as well. If a normative approach can get college students to reduce drinking, then there isn’t much is can’t do!

240 miles north of NSNI, nestled in the majestic hills of Delaware County Pennsylvania is another success story.

In Concordville, just south of Philadelphia and less than 100 miles from Baltimore lies the impressive 800 acre campus of a very successful high school program. It is a boarding school that houses about 1,000 males ages 14 to 18. Their facilities are nothing short of incredible. 13 residential houses, on-site medical, optometry and dental centers, an indoor olympic size natatorium, a massive indoor track and field center, a gorgeous 20,000 book library and a spectacular 6,636 yard golf course. The teachers have campus housing, company cars and a great pension. They routinely win state championships in various sports.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I did a project for them early in my career – which is how I found out about it. Frankly, I was a little thrown off when I got there. This was an American high school? The dorms were spotless. Students said “good morning” and “yes sir.” No one was walking on the grass.  Students were paying attention and when a teacher asked a question, everyone raised their hand.

I remember speaking with the librarian in their fantastic 20,000 book library. There was a large salt water aquarium in the middle of the room. I remember asking how she stops kids from throwing stuff into the tank. She basically said that would never happen. I chuckled thinking how she must be a new naive teacher. Doesn’t she know teenage boys love to break stuff; a trait they eventually grow out of, at around age 50. I found out later why she was right.

What is more remarkable is Glen Mills is not your average high school. They are a juvenile detention facility, and not the jay-walking kind of juvenile. The kids are in for some serious offences: armed robbery, assault, gang-activity, grand theft auto. Grant Grisson writes about the entire history in Without Locks and Bars: Reforming our Reform Schools. It is a fascinating study in social norming and cultural change.

Though founded in 1826, by the 1970’s Glen Mills was faltering. Grisson writes “very few administrators were interested in presiding over a dying facility.” Then in 1975, Sam Ferrainola (1932-2011) made a decision, the day after his arrival as administrator. He ordered all the locks and bars removed. No gates and no guards. Everyone thought he was dangerously naive and out of touch. But this was no touchy-feely bookworm. Sam, a Korean war veteran, never backed down from a fight, even with state politicians. But still, removing locks? In a reform school?

Ultimately, Sam believed a simple concept, which research has proven to be true. Negative peer pressure and destructive social norms can create very bad behavior; positive pressure can do the exact opposite.

During the first six months, Glen Mills was in chaos. Students left campus, teachers were in open revolt. They were financially strapped. Years later (spoiler alert) the institution began to change. That change begat other changes and soon the entire organization began re-focus on accountability, results, pride and ownership in the school.

Let me take a quick aside to address what might be the elephant in the room. There is often criticism that Glen Mills is pampering kids who should be doing time. That’s a fair critique if you believe in punitive punishment; Glen Mills just happens not to. They are focused on rehabilitation and results. Their recidivism rates are almost one-third of other facilities. They have non-existent rates of vandalism, violence, predation, theft, and teachers attacks. They have higher rates of high school graduation and college admittance.

I want to leave any and all politics aside. This is not a post about reforming our correctional system. There is no implied endorsement or critique. I only selected Glen Mills because it is the most extreme example I could find of social norming radically transforming an organization. That entire organization is driven by a core belief that human behavior stems from a need to gain peer group acceptance. If that encourages good behavior, people will behave. Positive peer pressure and norming even works on 1000 juvenile delinquents!

How does that help the organization directly?

For one, it is more effective than rules. Other detention centers have rules, but not results. Second, it frees up opportunity costs. That’s the only reason Glen Mills has such great facilities. They take the exact same money per student as other juvenile centers. They just don’t have to spend it on stun guns, barbed wire, gates, bars, cameras, locks, fixing vandalism, and guards. As an organization, they have “outsourced” their security apparatus to human sociology. Because of that, they are seeing a huge return on investment.

Ultimately, research and experience shows that a normative approach works. You need the courage and conviction to implement change. It needs to come from the top and permeate everything you do. You also need the patience to let the effect take hold. Social norms take hold easily but sometimes the effect takes time to see. Once it takes hold however, it has the benefit of being self-sustaining, which makes future changes even easier.