The Impact of Communicating Norms

As part of our reflection on the Black Lives Matter movement and our collective and ongoing fight against institutionalized and structural Anti-Black racism, In the Spotlight talked to Dr. Eric Hehman, Assistant Professor in the McGill Psychology Department and director of the Seeing Human Lab, and Eugene K. Ofosu (M.Sc.), Vanier Scholar and McGill Psychology PhD Student, about their research on the impact of communicating norms at individual, group, and institutional levels.


Your work focuses on norms and their impact on behaviour at various levels. Can you describe what norms represent in this context?

Eric: Norms are a set of both explicit and implicit rules that govern how individuals within a group or context are expected to behave, think, and feel. They exert a strong influence on attitudes and behaviors (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955), in that individuals often modify their views and actions to align with the perceived norms in their environment (Tankard & Paluck, 2016).

Where do norms come from? Do they stem from individuals, groups, or institutional levels, like departments, organizations, or governments?

Eric: Norms are not necessarily explicit and often must be inferred (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004), and people do so from their interactions and what they observe in their environments (Kallgren, Reno, & Cialdini, 2000; Paluck, 2009).

This information can take many forms, but signals from an institutional level can absolutely convey norms and influence behaviors of individuals in and around those institutions. For example, legislation is one of many ways that norms are conveyed in society, which would be an institutional or government level signal of norms.

Can norms be derived from symbols, like confederate flags or statues or insignia?

Eric: I am making a small leap of inference from what has been studied to confederate flags and statues, but to the extent that individuals and the public views these symbols as conveying a norm, that norm will be reinforced. This might be the erection of a new statue or tolerating an existing statue or tearing down an old statue. Each of these actions is conveying what is normative in society, and will influence others observing this outcome.

Based on your ongoing work, what is the importance or value of communicating norms when it comes to individual attitudes or group behaviour?

Eric: At a government level, some of our own recent research has examined how communicating norms through legislation can cause changes in prejudice. My graduate student Eugene Ofosu led a project testing whether same-sex marriage legalization in the U.S. caused changes in anti-gay attitudes (Ofosu, Chambers, Chen, & Hehman, 2019). Specifically, with approximately 1 million responses over a 12-year window, this research tested whether same-sex marriage legalization was associated with changes in the trend of anti-gay prejudice over time. We found that while anti-gay prejudice was decreasing over time prior to same-sex marriage legalization, following each state’s legalization of gay marriage, anti-gay prejudice decreased at roughly double its previous rate.

Source: Ofosu, Chambers, Chen, & Hehman, 2019; Levels of anti-gay implicit bias as reported by Project Implicit respondents over time, separated by U.S. state. Grey hash marks indicate the date of gay marriage legalization, with the grey line representing the date of federal legalization.


This finding isn’t just specific to the U.S. either, since a research team in Europe recently used a similar study design to examine variations in the timing of same-sex relationship recognition policies across 32 countries and over 325,000 respondents to test whether legal relationship recognition was associated with improvements in attitudes toward sexual minorities (Aksoy, Carpenter, De Haas, & Tran, 2020). The researchers concluded that “laws significantly improve attitudes toward sexual minorities” (pg. 2). Legal recognition of same-sex marriage was associated with a 3.5% percentage point increase in attitudes favorable toward sexual minorities, relative to prior to passing the laws (Aksoy et al., 2020). Since this analysis differed from our 2019 study in terms of research team, geographic region, approach, and dataset while still coming to a similar conclusion, it increases the confidence that these conclusions were not driven by specific characteristic of either study.

These are a few examples of a broad body of literature concluding that government signaling, whether it be through court action, legislation, policy, or other forms, causes changes in attitudes (Beaman, Duflo, Pande, & Topalova, 2012; Ebaugh & Haney, 1980; Flores & Barclay, 2016; Hooghe & Meeusen, 2013; Stangor, Sechrist, & Jost, 2001; Takács & Szalma, 2011; Tankard & Paluck, 2016, 2017; Uslaner & Weber, 1979).

So based on this body of research, how important are social or societal movements in terms of conveying norms?

Eric: Attitudes and behaviors deemed normative are prone to change. Individuals modify their behaviors and attitudes to be consistent with perceived norms (Dickerson, Thibodeau, Aronson, & Miller, 1992; Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 1994), so they are malleable over time.

Although social movements may not create a “permanent” change, it may depend on the extent to which this issue remains salient, and the extent to which the public continues to update and reinforce this norm. Prior to the election of Donald Trump, many in North America felt that a time of blatant racism and discrimination was in the past. Yet in the short time he has been president of the U.S., these norms have radically changed, partly due to signals coming from the president and his administration.

Some work has examined this empirically. For example, one longitudinal study asked participants about perceived norms and the acceptability of prejudice toward stigmatized groups, both before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump (Crandall, Miller, & White, 2018). Following Trump’s successful campaign, participants reported a perceived increase in the acceptability of prejudice toward stigmatized groups. Importantly, this result was specific to social groups targeted by the Trump campaign (e.g., Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants) and not toward other groups not targeted (e.g., atheists, people who cheat on taxes, Canadians). The authors concluded that, because Trump had a known platform, including spoken intentions to enact legislation impacting specific social groups (e.g., building a wall to deter immigration, making it more difficult for individuals from certain countries to obtain visas), as well as xenophobic statements regarding these social groups, his election signaled normative approval for these policies and attitudes, contributing to the perceived acceptability of expressing prejudice toward those groups. Therefore, while not legislation per se, this result still signaled prevailing norms, and consequently impacted attitudes.

Has there been any work to show that social or societal movements can enact norm change? For example, over the past month, we’ve seen global protests and marches organized in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Can movements like these aid in conveying norms and shifting the conversation?

Eric: I believe this is almost certainly the case. For example, in our recent paper, anti-gay bias was decreasing prior to same-sex legalization, and I don’t believe legalization would have happened if not for broad public support and grass roots movements beginning that conversation and signalling the changes of norms.

Eugene: Yes for sure, one of the big takeaway points from our paper, particularly within a norms framework is that norms caused a particular legislation, and this legislation further reinforced the norm itself, almost pushing a cyclical loop between norms, prejudice, and behaviour.

So to contextualize this within individual movements like Black Lives Matter and the potential power they have to impact norms, prejudice, and behaviour, some social psychologists have taken a look at bias, prejudice, attitude, and norms within this framework (Sawyer & Gampa, 2018). What they found is that during BLM protests, white folks’ racial attitude became less pro white and more pro Black. This finding also held true for both implicit and explicit attitudes and across the political spectrum. For example, liberals showed the greatest change, while conservatives also showed some changes, but not as large as the change seen in liberal folks.

So from this work, we know that social or societal movements can change attitudes at an individual-level, and there’s some evidence to show that it can change broader public support. In 2016, a Pew Research Study found that the average percentage of folks that were in favour of Black Lives Matter was 43%, and when breaking this down by race, white folks were at 40%, Black folks were at 65%, and Hispanic folks were at 33%. Two weeks ago, they followed up with this study and found massive jumps in support of the BLM movement. We now see that on average, 67% of adults support the BLM movement on some level, with increases represented in race as well – 60% of white folk are now in support of the BLM movement, 86% of Black folks, 77% of Hispanic folks, and we also see support from Asian folks as well, which speaks broadly to a norm or a sentiment that is shared among a society. This data provides some evidence that indeed civil movements can in fact influence the attitude and norms of the socially dominant group.

Source: Pew Research Center, 2016; "On Views of Race and Inequality, Black and Whites are Worlds Apart"; Pew Research Center, 2020; "Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement"


We also see this ripple effect happening on a broader scale, with changes in norms affecting departmental, institutional, and organizational structures and attitudes as well, right?

Eugene: There are direct behaviours that we have seen as a result of or spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement, and these are also seen on a global level, e.g., the U.S., Canada, London, France, etc. These movements have served as momentum for legislation banning neck restraints or chokeholds, a tactical discipline that has been associated with a disproportionate number of deaths (CNN, 2020). We have also observed an increase in the rates of confederation monuments coming down or being moved into museums where they are being appropriately contextualized, talks about renaming army bases and major tourist attraction that were named after individuals who either supported slavery or actively delayed the abolishment of the slave trade, like Henry Dundas who Dundas Square in Toronto was named after.

Even within corporations, we see some going with the flow of the current norms and taking concrete steps towards inclusion and the eradication of overt displays of racism, like NASCAR banning the hoisting of all confederate flags at their events, Pepsi Co pulling back from their ‘Aunt Jemima’ brand, and Johnson & Johnson, who in their own words are “embracing the beauty of diverse skins” by now making Band-Aids that complement non-white skin.


So as a take-home message, what does this body of work tell us about the value of communicating norms, at any level?

Eugene: Well we know that norms, attitudes, and legislation can have a reinforcing relationship with each other, whereby one results in the other or vice versa. In which case, one of the big take-home messages of the interconnectedness between norms and broader societal movements such as Black Lives Matter is that speaking up in one’s family, department, and just general society could have a galvanizing effect on people around you.

Image by Stephanie Keith.


Can you recommend some researchers who focus on changing biases on an individual level?

Eric & Eugene: Yes, there are lots of folks who focus on understanding individual prejudice and its ramifications more generally, but here are a few who focus on change specifically: our own Jordan Axt here at McGill, Nicole Shelton at Princeton, Calvin Lai at Washington University in St. Louis, Linda Tropp at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Denise Sekaquaptewa at the University of Michigan, Tessa Charlesworth at Harvard, Margo Monteith at Purdue, and Patricia Devine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Can you recommend some researchers who focus on systemic discrimination and race-related issues?

Eric & Eugene: Yes, there are many great researchers focusing on this, both in psychology but also in economics, political science, sociology, and other areas that tend to have more of a macro focus. To name a few: Jennifer Richeson and Michael Kraus who are both at Yale, Stacey Sinclair at Princeton, Sylvia Perry at Northwestern University, Keith Maddox at Tufts University, Jennifer Doleac at Texas A&M, Nilanjana Dasgupta at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Jennifer Eberhardt at Stanford, Jack Glaser at UC Berkeley, Jimmy Calanchini at UC Riverside, Kimberly Kahn at Portland State University, Phil Goff at UC Los Angeles, and Brian Lowery at Stanford.

Back to top