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Cultural Norms: Definition, Values & Quiz

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Taught by

Manuela Heberle

Manuela has master's degree in counseling. As an adjunct faculty member at Park University, Manuela has taught psychology, social psychology, and a tests and measurements course. In addition to being a Student Success and Retention Coordinator at New Mexico State University in Alamogodo, she also taught psychology and student success courses. nts course. Her experience with New Mexico State University includes teaching psychology and student success courses, as well as working as a Student Success and Retention Coordinator.

Cultural norms are what keep people moving in a similar direction. This lesson explains the relationship between cultural norms and values. We'll also look at an experiment that tells us about our willingness to conform.

What Is A Cultural Norm?

Have you ever wondered why most people who live in a certain country think and behave in similar ways, and why people from one country or culture are so different from people of another culture? The difference has to do with cultural norms. The term culture refers to attitudes and patterns of behavior in a given group. Norm refers to attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal, typical or average within that group. All societies have cultural norms. Even though norms influence every facet of our lives, including what we value, our attitudes, and how we behave, we are often unaware that we are influenced at all.

How Are Cultural Norms and Values Related?

The culture of a nation is transmitted through its existing systems. Three systems play a key role in the transmission of cultural norms - government, education and family. Typically, government sets forth an ideology or set of beliefs. These beliefs, and the behaviors that support them, are then taught by schools and by families. The beliefs are often referred to as values, and the behaviors that support these values are referred to as norms.

Here's an example of how a cultural norm might be transmitted, and how it is related to a value. The United States government promotes a belief that everyone is responsible for their own destiny. If I am educated in the United States, I have likely been taught that America is the land of opportunity, and that I am free to choose my destiny. In other words, with hard work, I can do anything. More than likely, my parents have also communicated a similar value system to me. They may have stressed that if I get an education and work hard, I will have a good life. As a result, I will probably value competition and individualism, and I will have a tendency to judge those who are less successful.

Cultural norms also exist in smaller groups or cultures, not just in larger societies. Hispanic-American and African-American cultures are examples of groups that have their own set of values and norms. Although they usually take on a number of cultural norms from the larger culture (the United States), they have additional values and norms that are passed on through generations. Values and norms for these 'sub-cultures' are transmitted through the family system.

Does Everyone Conform?

Norms and values are intertwined, and some degree of conformity is expected. In some cases, there is even pressure to conform. Take a moment to think about a time when you felt pressured to fall in line with others. It is not unusual to behave in ways similar to those around us. In fact, imitation is quite common. Let's take a look at a famous experiment that illustrates the point.

Solomon Asch
Photo of Solomon Asch
In the 1950's, Solomon Asch did an experiment to see how likely people are to conform. College students were told that they were part of a study about visual perception. They were shown two different cards, one with a single black line and another with three lines of varying lengths. One of the three lines was equal to the length of the line on the other card. When asked which line of the three lines matched the single line on the other card, those in on the experiment were instructed to give a correct answer during the first two trials and an incorrect answer on the third trial. The participants announced their answers out loud, so that the final respondent, who was not part of the experiment, could either conform to the majority or deviate from the norm.

The result was stunning. About 25% of the participants did not conform. 75% did conform to the majority, even when the wrong answer was given and the difference in the length of the lines was as much as seven inches!

Two Cards Used In Conformity Experiment
Two Cards Used In Conformity Experiment

Clearly, we imitate quite readily. On the one hand, conformity to norms keeps society moving in the same direction and helps to avoid chaos. On the other hand, if a large segment of the population conforms without making an effort to objectively examine the values and norms of their culture or group, there is real danger. Let's say that a country's government promotes the notion that their particular system is the best in the world. If most teachers conform to the notion without question, then schools will likely teach the positive aspects of the system and down-play or ignore the negative aspects. If the majority of students accept those teachings without question, and if what they have learned in school is reinforced by family members, it becomes a 'reality' for them. The values and norms based on this reality might include nationalism and feelings of superiority, even to the extent of trying to impose the system onto other countries. Of course this is an extreme example, but it helps illustrate the danger in blind conformity.

Lesson Summary

Culture norms are sets of behaviors and beliefs shared by members of a society or group of people. Cultural norms are typically transmitted by government, educational, and family social systems. Members of a culture are often expected to conform to the norms of the greater culture. Solomon Asch's line experiment demonstrated that many people conform subconsciously. While some conformity keeps society in alignment, too much conformity can be dangerous.

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