Social norms are the parameters that tell us how to act according to the moment or circumstance in which we are enrolled. They are fundamental processes in our interaction and in how we perceive ourselves within a group, and we can identify several types and a great multiplicity of expressions.

We will now review what they are, what they are for, and what types of social norms are most common in our societies .

What are social norms?

Social norms are a set of frames of reference that are shared by the people who make up a group . A framework is something that delimits (that establishes a series of limits) and a reference is something that serves as a model, that is, that establishes a relationship.

Thus, we can say that social norms are the series of limits that serve us as a model, both mental and behavioral, to relate to the world. They are implicit in our relationships and shape much of our expectations. They are implicit because, although they are always present (otherwise we would not know how to behave or relate), it is not always necessary to express their presence out loud.

Thus, we act and even think according to a series of social norms in accordance with the group we belong to (endogroup), and also according to the relationships we establish with the other groups (exogroup). We may even share certain norms with some group, and not with another one that seems very different to us. This happens without necessarily being aware of it.

But social norms are not formed out of nothing, they arise from our own action. If they exist and are maintained, it is because we constantly repeat them, and for the same reason we have a certain margin of action to transgress or modify them .

What are they for?

Social norms are shared among the members of a group, they make people recognize us as part of the group; that is why social norms are easily internalized. That is why they are also necessary for socialization, which leads us to consider that social norms are also a type of regulation of power relationships, which vary according to history and the conditions of each context.

In sum, social norms are also a psychosocial process , because they are not only visible in observable behavior (individual or group), but they also generate expectations of action and ideas about oneself. That is, they connect thought with action, and the individual with groups.

5 types of social norms

The types of social norms are differentiated by the degree of correlation that can exist between normative expectations and normative actions . There is not always an explicit correlation between the two. Sometimes social norms are only translated into actions when it is a question of expectations shared by an entire group, whether it is a membership group or a reference group.

The types of norms that we present below take as reference the works of Muzafer Sherif, one of the founders of modern social psychology. We consider them as different types of social norms because they relate expectations of action with possibilities of action according to the interactions that occur within a particular group .

However, there may be many more types and the classification depends largely on the author, because in social and human studies themselves there are different social norms that delimit the information we present.

1. Values

Quality that is conferred to things, to actions, to people. A series of ideological or moral principles that are shared by a society and that guide it. For example, honesty, solidarity, punctuality. These values may be shared by some societies or groups, and not by others. Also, depending on the life history, they may be more present or more important for some people than for others.

To give a more specific example, there are social groups that have quite internalized punctuality as an indispensable social norm for coexistence, and in contrast, there are groups for whom punctuality may be in the background.

2. Customs

Customs are a set of habits , which as such, have been acquired, shared and naturalised by a group or society. They even come to form the distinctive character of said group and of the people who compose it.

For example, manners at lunchtime. In some societies it is allowed to eat on the floor or chew with a lot of noise, while doing the same in other societies can be read as disrespect and can affect coexistence. In other words, a transgression of the social norm of the group.

3. Fashions

In statistical terms “mode” is the value that has the highest frequency within a data set; which could be translated as “that which follows the majority”. In sociological terms, fashion is a custom that members of a group follow on a temporary or passing basis . They can be expressed in different ways and are present in all societies. They assume a certain validity, with which they momentarily reinforce our sense of belonging to a group, and differentiate us from other groups or from other members of the same group.

Perhaps the clearest example is the use of certain clothing and the adoption of certain aesthetics and interests according to the time and the particular group, which constitutes a social norm because it allows us to establish relationships with the members of the group and identify with them.

4. Stereotypes

Stereotypes are images or models accepted by a majority as patterns or qualities intrinsic to the behavior and personality of some group members, or of other groups.

Stereotypes allow us to activate a series of ideas, expectations, predispositions and possibilities of action when we see or think about a person or group of people, even without having lived with them or really known them, but simply because we automatically attribute certain qualities to them.

For example, it is very common to see in the Western media, and in much of the business advertising, many stereotypes about female beauty, where what is reinforced is the expectation of a slim body, that has a certain height, a certain color, a certain aesthetic, etc.

5. Roles

The word “role” refers to the role that someone plays in a particular group, i.e. their function and the behaviours that are expected of them.

One example is traditional gender roles where the family is composed of a heterosexual couple, where the man is the provider and the woman is the caretaker of the family and household. These roles are social norms because they generate expectations, and possibilities of action and relationship that are specific to some people and not to others according to the particular society.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rodríguez, A. (2009). The social norm on the expression of explicit prejudice towards different social groups. Journal of Social Psychology, 24(1): 17-27.
  • Sheriff, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York, USA: Harper Bros.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). Social Norms. Retrieved May 17, 2018. Available at