Social norms

Social norms are incredibly impactful on our behaviour and happiness, and a person’s social network creates these. The impact of social norms can help us understand why people behave the way they do and have adverse outcomes counter to their goals. Deliberately cultivating your social network allows you to create social norms to help you live the life you want.  

Research carried out on the Framingham Heart Study, covering 12,000 people over 30 years found that obesitysmoking, and happiness levels appear to spread through social ties. The researchers wanted to know how social factors affected the spread of behaviours friends, siblings, spouse, and neighbours. The research found substantial impact, not only in a person’s immediate network but also across three degrees of separation in social networks. 

In the study of the spread of obesity, researchers found clusters of obesity that could not be explained by overweight people selectively choosing to be in networks with overweight individuals. The study suggested that your chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if you have a friend who becomes obese. The effects did not appear to be related to the levels of obesity in neighbours or people in the same geographical location. Interestingly the influence was more substantial when the social connection was with a person of the same sex than from someone of the opposite sex.

Follow up study looking at the person-to-person spread of smoking behaviour concluded that social ties had a similar effect on smoking. The study suggested that whole groups of people were quitting together, a person’s chances of quitting were improved by 67% if their spouse stopped, 25% if a friend stopped, and 34% if a coworker stopped smoking. Again, the effects did not seem to be impacted by neighbours. Education levels did affect smoking behaviour changes, clusters of more educated friends having more influence on each other.

The same researchers then used a subset of the data to ask if changes in happiness spread within social networks. The study found that an individual’s happiness depends on the happiness of people in their network. The effect was again seen up to three degrees of separation, meaning your happiness is impacted by the friends of your friends’ friends. Changes in happiness are affected by your social network within your immediate geographic location and are reduced time and geographical distance.

People around us have an enormous impact on our behaviour due to the social norms created by members of this group. Social norms are the collective behaviours we perceive as acceptable, both in the actions people in our social group show us and the group’s approval in reaction to that behaviour. If people in our friendship group normalise behaviours like weight gain, smoking, or happiness, then it changes how we think and what we feel we should do. This can help explain why some people find it hard to lose weight, save money or exercise even when they know it is the right thing to do and desperately what to do it. 

It is important to note that we are an active part of the social networks we belong to. We should make deliberate choices in all aspects of our lives to create social norms that align with what we want in life by selecting the groups of people we interact with most and our reactions to their behaviours.