Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.

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Psy Applied: Self-Control Strategies for Life (Part 3)

As the holiday season winds down, and marketers make their last cash grab of 2015, it’s time to talk about a self-control dilemma that is near and dear to my heart: impulse shopping. Black Friday is over, Cyber Monday has come and gone, but for some reason, there is no term for the deep discounts on holiday overstock that are currently flooding my email inbox. Perhaps that’s part of the point. By keeping marketing messages subtle, retailers can actually activate thoughts without your conscious awareness. You probably just got a bunch of crap you don’t need yesterday, so why are you thinking of buying more stuff today just because it’s 25% off? Knowing is half the battle, so in this installment of Psy Applied, I will be shedding some light onto the ways that marketers influence your purchasing goals.

  1. Priming- When someone is primed, it means that they have encountered a message that has affected their thoughts and behavior outside of conscious awareness.1 This is literally the entire point behind a lot of brand messaging. Much of the efficacy of these messages depends on you staying the dark. If you suddenly have a craving for Coca-Cola, you may not act on it if you realize that you’ve just been exposed to a Coca-Cola product placement on a television show. However, if you don’t notice the product placement, you are significantly more likely to choose the brand that you have just been exposed to. Research on priming has revealed some potent effects. In research about incidental brand exposure, researchers altered several pictures by placing a Dasani water bottle in the scene.2 The participants who didn’t notice the Dasani water in the pictures were significantly more likely to choose Dasani bottled water over another brand, but only after they had been exposed to the brand 12 times.2 While this may seem excessive, it actually mimics real life in many ways. We are bombarded with thousands of incidental brand messages each day, many of which involve repeat exposure to popular brands.3 Marketers use the fact that you can’t attend to all of these messages to their advantage, and they hope to bug you enough to be on your brain, but not enough so that you really know why. Notice the prime, fight the power.
  1. Persuasive appeals- Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has spent much of his career trying to uncover the strategies that people use to persuade others to behave in certain desired ways. Specifically, Cialdini uncovered 6 persuasion tactics that marketers use to make you buy in.4 The first strategy, reciprocation, depends on you feeling indebted for getting something for free, whether it’s a sample at the grocery store, or a five-dollar bill included with a marketing survey you got in the mail. Essentially, they make you feel like you owe them. The second strategy, and my personal favorite, is social proof. This is when marketers convince you that everyone else is doing it. In one study about hotel water conservation, guests were significantly more likely to reuse their towels when the appeal to do so included information that most of the other guests participated in the reuse program.5 This is basically marketing peer pressure. The third strategy, commitment, activates our desire to be consistent in our thoughts and behavior, and is often used for things like weight loss programs. If you tell everyone you are doing it, you have a desire to follow through so you don’t look bad. No one wants to be a flip-flopper. Strategy four, liking, is a common approach used by salespeople. We buy things from people we like, so marketers try harness this in several ways. They may hire a popular celebrity, a person that’s incredibly attractive, or they may try to target marketing towards specific people, increasing liking through the similarity between you and the spokesperson. The fifth strategy, authority, involves convincing people that you have expert knowledge. Marketers may use doctors to sell weight loss drugs or chefs to sell cookware. Their goal is to convince you that people in the know prefer their products. Finally, the sixth strategy, scarcity, tries to convince people that their opportunity to buy is limited. This may be through special edition or seasonal products, or through limited release collector’s editions, for example. The name of the game is to make you feel like you will miss out if you don’t act now. These 6 strategies are incredibly effective, and they’ve been selling you stuff since you were born.

It’s not surprising that advertising appeals affect the things that we purchase. Why else would companies dump billions of dollars into marketing? We often like to think that we are above being influenced, but Cialdini has demonstrated just how easy it is to persuade someone, while others have shed light onto how this may affect your behavior completely outside of conscious awareness. As we enter 2016 with our holiday bills burning a hole in our mailboxes, remember this: A savvy consumer is a suspicious consumer.

 

  1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 464.
  1. Ferraro, R., Bettman, J. R., & Chartrand, T. L. (2009). The power of strangers: The effect of incidental consumer brand encounters on brand choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(5), 729-741.
  1. Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: how apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
  1. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence. A. Michel.
  1. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

 

 

 

 

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 5

It’s the season of love, laughter and seeing everyone you’ve ever met, so let’s talk about social norms. Norms refer to what is “normal,” or what is commonly done or preferred by others. Norms are always at work during our shopping experiences, from the way the sales associate treats you in a friendly way, to the way that you behave while browsing merchandise. And, they’re also at work when we interact with one another in the marketplace, from allowing someone with one item to pass you in line, to helping a child get something off of a high shelf. Basically, there are two kinds of norms: injunctive and descriptive. Injunctive norms refer to what ought to be done, or what is most highly approved by other people.1 These are things like giving to charity or volunteering time. Descriptive norms, however, are essentially descriptions of what others are doing in a given situation.1 These are things like, “75% of people give to the Red Cross following a natural disaster.” Norms are incredibly powerful, and they regulate our behavior in many ways. The consumer domain is no different.

Do you ever wonder why you tip in restaurants even though you don’t want to? It’s because of social norms. Tipping in restaurants nets $26 billion a year in the United States, but it’s not from the goodness of people’s hearts.2 It’s because they don’t want to look cheap in front of their friends, or because everyone else does it.2 This helps to explain why tipping is common in the US, but not in other countries. In the US, it is a social norm, and in other countries it isn’t.*

What other people are doing affects our behavior in the marketplace in other ways, as well. For instance, people are more likely to impulse buy when the practice is seen as normative within their community.3 So, essentially, bad behavior flies if other people are doing it. But marketers can harness the power of these same social norms to reach desired outcomes. In a famous study about hotel water conservation, a group of researchers found that adding a descriptive norm about how often other hotel guests reuse their towels to a statement about water conservation increased participation in the towel reuse program by almost 10%.4

So, to answer the age-old question, would you jump off a bridge if everyone else was doing it? Science suggests you very well might. So, protect yourself this holiday season and march to the beat of your own drummer!

* This is NOT advice to stop tipping. Always tip your waitstaff! As we just discussed, it’s expected in the US and counted as part of a server’s salary.

  1. Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015.
  2. Azar, O. H. (2004). What sustains social norms and how they evolve?: The case of tipping. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 54(1), 49-64.
  3. Rook, D. W., & Fisher, R. J. (1995). Normative influences on impulsive buying behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 305-313.
  4. Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

10 Days of Christmas…Consumerism: Day 4

SEM

Structural equation model from Dholakia, Bagozzi, & Pearo, 2003

In the digital age, when so much holiday shopping occurs online, how are consumers socially influenced? The answer is: surprisingly a lot. The average adult in the US spends 5 of their waking hours online. But what are we doing online? We’re on social media, we’re reading and commenting on news articles and discussing that internet content with others. Consider the last time you were with a friend and you brought up an article you saw online, or a post from Instagram. This is part of the way that content goes viral, this word of mouth advertising from trusted others. Word of mouth moves even faster on the internet, with websites like Yelp and Amazon at our fingertips, reviewing products and services from plumbers to stereos.

Social influence is the highest in virtual contexts when people are engaged in relationships, in real life or within a brand community. This is because we’re most influenced by our ingroup members (people we consider part of our social circle, or group within society, e.g. all people of one race, all people of one social class or all alumni of the same college).1 When we’re engaged in virtual brand communities, we form social bonds with that group, creating an ingroup of people and increasing identification with the brand.2 Brand communities can also invoke peer pressure, like pressure to conform in some undesired group discussion, and establish community norms, created and maintained by the moderators and high profile members of the those communities.2 Check out the graphic for a depiction of the incredibly complex process of creating web content through social influence.

Brands themselves have social influence, especially if they are “identity signaling brands.” An identity signaling brand is something that announces you to the world and says, “This reflects who I am as a person.” Not surprisingly, while people tend to stick with the status quo and purchase the same things as others, in identity signaling domains that include displays of wealth or social class, they want to be seen as unique.3 But we all also vary on our need for uniqueness, with some individuals needing to stand out from others, and some preferring to fit in through their choices as consumers.4 For instance, when shopping for a car, someone with a high need for uniqueness may buy a Smart Car (rare here in America), while someone with a low need for uniqueness may buy a Honda (quite common in America). Someone who sees his or her car as an identity signal may be more likely to want to purchase an expensive and rare car, like a Bugatti, to show others that they are different.

It is the job of marketers to be persuasive, and to increase demand for products within the community. And, meanwhile, it is human nature to be influenced by the words and actions of others, as well as our own desires to fit in or stand out. Beware before you engage in social activities based around brands this holiday season! Harnessing the power of peers and the power of consumer goods is a potent combination.

  1. Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.
  2. Algesheimer, R., Dholakia, U. M., & Herrmann, A. (2005). The social influence of brand community: evidence from European car clubs. Journal of Marketing, 69(3), 19-34.
  3. Berger, J., & Heath, C. (2007). Where consumers diverge from others: Identity signaling and product domains. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(2), 121-134.
  4. Tian, K. T., Bearden, W. O., & Hunter, G. L. (2001). Consumers’ need for uniqueness: Scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research, 28(1), 50-66.

Get Psyched for Halloween!

Image from Nutritious Eats

           Image from Nutritious Eats

If you’re like me, some of your favorite childhood memories are of Halloween. You get to dress up like someone or something else, go to strangers’ houses and ask them for treats, cause a little mischief and binge on candy. But the best thing about Halloween? There’s a lot of social psychology at work.

Anonymity: Anonymity may make people more susceptible to group influence.1 This could even help to account for an increase in criminal activity on Halloween. Visual anonymity, specifically, seems to increase identification with the group, be that delinquent peers or society in general.2 Some classic studies have found a direct correlation between stealing and Halloween costumes.3,4 Researchers found that trick-or-treaters who were both anonymous and with a group of other children were more likely to steal candy and money when given the chance.3 Another study found that Halloween masks could elicit a state of deindividuation*, and found evidence that children in masks were more likely to take more candy than unmasked children, when the experimenter was not in the room.4

Norms: Usually, if you knocked on someone’s door at night dressed as a blood-sucking Zombie demanding candy, people would freak out and call the police. But on Halloween, this would be expected, and norms would be altered for the night. You might even be called a party pooper if you don’t make an effort to dress in costume. These kinds of social norms have long been of interest to social psychologists. Descriptive norms are social rules transmitted by others; so when you show up to the Halloween party as the only one in costume, all of a sudden, you feel out of place, even though you would fit in at a more festive party.5 Injunctive norms speak to what should be done, or what is socially endorsed, i.e. you should go to the party in costume because you are supposed to wear a costume on Halloween.5 Social norms are often positive, but they can also lead to higher levels of conformity, riskier decisions and worse decisions through consensus.6,7,8,9 Norms are also at work when people throw costume parties, visit the pumpkin patch or go to haunted houses. Not only does the seasonal social acceptance of the activity encourage us to partake in some strange stuff, our desire to act in accordance with norms is a billion dollar industry ($11.3 to be exact).

Prosocial behavior: The act of handing out free candy to kids is both a Halloween norm, and an example of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is any behavior that works for the good of the group, rather than the good of the self. Things like sharing, taking turns and common courtesy are all types of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior has a lot of individual and societal benefits like lower perceptions of competition, higher need for achievement, higher social cognitive abilities in children and may even be linked to higher levels of altruism.10,11,12

It’s clear that our Halloween traditions involve social psychology, from the norms in place that dictate our Halloween activities, the anonymity that allows for increased mischief, and the prosocial nature of some of our Halloween traditions. So this Friday, put your SocialPsyQ to work! What are some social psychology phenomena you see on Halloween?

* Deindividuation is the loss of self-awareness in groups.

  1. Postmes, T., Spears, R., Sakhel, K., & de Groot, D. (2001). Social influence in computer-mediated communication: The effects of anonymity on group behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(10), 1243-1254.
  2. Lea, M., Spears, R., & de Groot, D. (2001). Knowing me, knowing you: Anonymity effects on social identity processes within groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(5), 526-537.
  3. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Pschology, 33(2), 178-183.
  4. Miller, F. G., & Rowold, K. L. (1979). Halloween masks and deindividuation. Psychological reports, 44(2), 422
  5. Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & L. Gardner (Eds). The handbook of social psychology, Vols. 1 and 2 (4th ed.), (pp. 151-192). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.
  6. Sherif, M. (1937). An experimental approach to the study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1(1/2), 90-98.
  7. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.
  8. Stoner, J. A. F. (1968). Risky and cautious shifts in group decisions: The influence of widely held values. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 4(4), 442-459.
  9. Postmes, T., Spears, R., & Cihangir, S. (2001). Quality of decision making and group norms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(6), 918-930.
  10. Puffer, S. M. (1987). Prosocial behavior, noncompliant behavior, and work performance among commission salespeople. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(4), 615-621.
  11. Denham, S. A. (1986). Social cognition, prosocial behavior, and emotion in preschoolers: Contextual validation. Child Development, 57(1), 194-201.
  12. Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91-119.

Beating the Wedding Industrial Complex—You can, too!

September and October are becoming increasingly popular months for weddings, overtaking the more traditional wedding month of June, which makes now the perfect time to talk about the wedding industrial complex, or WIC for short. I first heard this term on APracticalWedding.com, where the editor-in-chief Meg Keene wrote a fantastic post on it, and it resonated with me immediately. You see, I’m getting married this weekend. I was in the thick of fighting off the WIC—now I’m almost through!—and it is difficult, despite my knowledge of social psychology.

For those of you who are married, and especially those who got married during the current social media era where social comparison is ever easier, you may already know what I’m talking about. For those of you who would like to get married eventually, consider yourself warned. The WIC is basically all those factors that interact to make the two people getting married feel pressured to have the “right” type of wedding. Note: “right” often translates to traditional and expensive.

The WIC preys on the unsuspecting good-intentioned folks who just want to have a nice wedding. They want to have fun, they want it to be organized and pretty, and they definitely do not want anyone to be hungry. Deciding the specifics that correspond with each of those desires is more ambiguous. Enter the wedding industry. The wedding industry is a $51 billion dollar a year industry that seeks to convince you that you absolutely need to have a fully stocked open bar, and your dress must be Vera Wang with an intricate bouquet to match. Anything less, and your wedding will be just that: less than.

Admittedly, I’m painting a harsh picture of the wedding industry, making them seem calculating and manipulative, all in the goal to get you to spend as much money as possible to have The Perfect Wedding. If I’m being fair, the wedding industry is not the only cause to blame here; after all, the ultimate goal of businesses is to turn a profit. It’s also you. Yes, you, your expectations, societal influence, and more than a little bit of social psychology.

  One of the most egregious examples of injunctive wedding norms I’ve ever seen

Why do we feel the need to stress out over seemingly inconsequential details about the wedding (like whether the cumberbund color will clash with the table runners)* when, realistically, we know that a wedding is not about the color scheme? What it really boils down to is social norms. That is, how people “should” behave and how people are actually behaving. The former is an injunctive norm, and it implies there’s a right and wrong way to do things. The latter is a descriptive norm, and it describes how people are actually behaving.

The injunctive norm tells us that weddings are supposed to have a sit down dinner, that paper flowers are not okay, that not having a bridal party—gasp!—is totally crossing the line. I won’t even get into the proscribed norms about how a bride should look. The descriptive norm incorporates all those wedding experiences of your friends, family, celebrities, and the wedding industry as if to say, “See? This is how weddings are happening all across your world.” Descriptive doesn’t imply that an action or event is right or wrong, but the boundary between descriptive and injunctive seems to get blurry when wedding planning is involved.

Clearly, both types of norms contribute to the wedding industrial complex, because they draw in a person’s experiences and exposure to what the mainstream culture suggests is appropriate for a wedding.

So how can you escape the seemingly impenetrable wedding industrial complex? Well, you can use norms to your own advantage. Specifically, use descriptive norms in a way that promotes and helps your wedding experience. Make your wedding the norm. After all, your wedding should count as much as any of the others. Seek out additional sources of support (like apracticalwedding.com) that diminish any injunctive norms, because there really isn’t a right or wrong way to do weddings. Finally, even if you aren’t planning a wedding yourself right now, be supportive of anyone who is. Don’t contribute to the wedding industrial complex by imposing injunctive norms on anyone. You may have been part of the problem, but you can also be part of the solution!

Wish me luck this weekend.

 


*Some profanity in here. Potentially NSFW.

**The traditional wedding I’m drawing my norms from refers primarily to a middle-upper class wedding. Admittedly, weddings of all shapes and sizes exists with their own accompanying pressures!