Consensual standards that describe what behaviors should and should not be performed in a given context are called social norms. They prescribe the socially appropriate way to respond in the situation - the "normal" course of action - as well as proscribing actions to avoid if at all possible. Social norms, in contrast to statistical norms or general expectations based on intuitive base rates for behavior, include an evaluative component. People who do not comply with the norms of a situation and cannot provide an acceptable explanation for their violation are evaluated negatively. This condemnation can include hostility, pressure to change, negative sanctions, and punishment, but the reaction depends on the magnitude of the discrepancy, the importance of the norm, and the characteristics of the person who violates the norm. Wearing too colorful a tie, not bowing properly when introduced, or talking about overly intimate matters with a new acquaintance may violate situational norms of propriety, but they will rarely earn public rejection. Small violations that reflect personal idiosyncrasies, if kept private, are often overlooked, as are violations committed by prestigious or powerful individuals. Violations of moral norms prohibiting theft or prescribing duties, in contrast, will be roundly condemned (Sabini & Silver, 1978). This evaluative reaction is, however, asymmetric. Whereas violating a norm often generates negative responses, merely complying with a norm will rarely earn one praise. A norm often becomes salient to interactants only after it is violated (Forsyth, 1990).

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Copyright © 1995 Blackwell. This article first appeared in Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology.

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