From Normal to Normative, Human Minds’ Conformist Conservative Prejudice

In a post on why it was valuable and effective for people to change their Facebook avatars to express solidarity in support of marriage equality last spring while DADT and DOMA were being debated in front of the US Supreme Court with the world watching, Melanie Tannenbaum wrote about crucial social psychology findings that moral philosophers, morally progressive social justice thinkers and activists,  and morally conscientious people generally must seriously contend with:

One of the big ways that the people around us exert these influences is through the use of norms, those messages that we send out about what’s acceptable, appropriate, and…well, normal. Descriptive norms simply describe the way that things are, whereas prescriptive norms offer a mandate about how things should be. For example, if I said that most college students go to class wearing jeans and sweatshirts, that would be a descriptive norm. If I said that you should wear jeans and a sweatshirt in order to fit in, that would be prescriptive. Quite possibly the most important takeaway point from all of the research that’s been done on norms is just how powerful descriptive norms can be. When people try to change behavior, they often focus on prescriptive norms, telling people what they should do. We often underestimate just how strongly we respond to what other people actually do.

In a classic study, Cialdini and colleagues manipulated the signs that were displayed in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, a site often plagued by tourists who end up grabbing some of the petrified wood to take home as a souvenir. In situations like this, the first inclination of well-meaning environmentalists might be to set a strong prescriptive norm — perhaps by saying something like, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest. This is bad, don’t do this.” The idea here would be to invoke a sense of shame and severity before asking visitors to refrain from taking the wood. But read that prescriptive message once again. Is there anything descriptive in there? Yes, of course there is. That message is not just telling you that you shouldn’t take the wood — it’s also telling you that most other people do. In fact, people were actually more likely to steal wood from the forest when they saw the sign telling them how many people tend to do it themselves, even though the very next sentence was asking them to refrain. But when the researchers simply tweaked the message to read that “the vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, helping to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” the thievery plummeted.

We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

She goes on in the rest of the article to give a number of recognizable real world examples of this principle at work. People gauge what they should do more by what they see others doing than by what they are told to do. I will also admit, ashamedly, that I myself can vividly remember at least a couple cases of doing things that I deep down knew were wrong, while knowingly using people that I knew about who did similar things and who I knew were well-condemned for those things as role models for how to do these wrong things. It didn’t matter that prescriptively I knew most people thought those behaviors were wrong, I took specific cues and modeled actions on them anyway. Such is the corruptive potential of natural conformist tendencies.

To use this knowledge for good, we have a practical argument for publicizing our views. We influence each other constantly. Just knowing you think a certain way or do a certain thing has the potential to influence others to think that way or do what you do. It at least gives them a little more permission to do so than they already felt like they had. Many a former believer or an out gay person relates to me a story of the first time they encountered someone who admitted to being an atheist (or gay) and having a sudden realization that they too could identify this way if they wanted. These are powerful revelatory moments in people’s lives. And all they need sometimes is one role model to nonchalantly show them that others can think or say or do what deep down makes sense to them.

So, that’s the positive takeaway from our susceptibility to one another’s influence. But of course it is infamously fallacious to do things just because others do. We need better ethical norms than that, ones that take into account moral principles and which lead to the maximal powerful flourishing of the greatest number of people, consistent with the worst off winding up the best off they can realistically be. If we are to achieve greater social justice we need people to become actively and deliberately suspicious of what is normally done.

And so in this context, the dark downside of these findings is that a bias towards following people’s behaviors over abstract prescriptions means that people will usually trend conservatively in their behaviors and moral judgments. Whatever people are doing already will be more influential on them than intellectually superior abstract arguments about what they should be doing. And I think this very well be another reason that we see so much victim-blaming that excuses or justifies the violating behaviors of perpetrators so long as their behaviors are typical, usual, normal.

It is almost as though this implicit, rarely acknowledged, understanding that the real moral norms are found in the patterns of  things people do, rather than in what they say, suddenly becomes more explicit in people’s reluctance to criticize a behavior that’s normal and in their sometimes shockingly insensitive and blatantly immoral hostility to the victim who challenges that normalcy. Even though according to their professed and probably intellectually real aversion to people being abused, you would expect them to side with the one who has been attacked, their conservative, conformist tendency to defer to the merely normal as morally normative takes over and they are more protective of the implicit norms about specific behaviors than the explicit (but more general) norms that should clearly and logically be applied to rule out those specific behaviors. So “boys will be boys”, “kids will be cruel”, and “everyone knows what goes on at frat parties” all become justifying appeals to the normal that suddenly have power to trump the more general and abstract injunctions against rape and bullying which abstract morality almost universally condemns as the worst evils. (For more on victim blaming see some more analyses of its possible causes in my post, “Vulnerability, Victim-Blaming, and the Just World Fallacy”.)

This irrational defensiveness of the ugly normal comes up even outside of victim blaming contexts. I can’t keep track of how often I make a moral argument against a behavior and instead of showing me the flaw in my thinking, the retort I get is, “Well, most people do that” or “Most people are not going to listen to you” or “Tell that to the average person”, etc. Translation: “Well, that’s not what the majority of people do, so I feel entitled to ignore all your substantive points about what people should do.” This does not just go for specific arguments about specific ethical issues. Even whole formal accounts of ideal moral reasoning get dismissed routinely by my students with “yeah, but that’s not what people do”, as though that, by itself, has any bearing on whether it’s what they should do.

I find these sorts of overt appeals to the normal as normative fascinating for the ways they reveal people to implicitly seem to actually be in touch with their unreflective method for figuring out what to do, regardless of how patently illogical a method of reasoning it is and regardless of the fact that most would probably see, if put to them abstractly and clearly, that there is an important moral difference between what people in fact do and what they should do. In behavior, what is normal becomes what is normative. And when unreflectively and defensively trying to justify themselves or others the appeal to what just happens to be normal pops right to their minds as a good defense, even when it’s a ridiculous or pernicious one.

This gets even more interesting when we consider how uncritically prone people are to equate whatever is presently held up as the moral ideal with the only thing that could ever be understood to be the moral ideal. They are prone to perceive and to attack intellectual or practical challenges to a prescription currently taken to be morally forceful as assaults on morality itself. So when you attack the legitimacy of a dominant moral norm, you will often be accused of opposing morality; not just a norm that, in your eyes, is only taken to be moral but is not really moral. (See more on this in my post “Nietzsche’s Immoralism As Rebellion Against The Authoritarian Tendencies of Moralities”)

This irrational tendency to conflate the present perception of morality with morality itself is so pervasive that even some critics of dominant social mores will confusedly understand themselves to unironically oppose “morality” itself and not just bad and illegitimate attempts at moral thinking and commanding.  With this in mind, I am now thinking that not only do people get reflexively defensive of what is explicitly taken to be the moral standard, but they are comparably prone to irrational belligerence in defense of the status quo, out of a less-than-conscious commitment to it as another sort of, possibly deeper, morality–one which may even trump the explicit moralities they dutifully mouth allegiances to but hypocritically flout in practice routinely.

So all this adds up to yet another key reason why the conformist, conservative standard issue human brain is so likely to prejudicially attack and try to silence those who express ideas and values that would condemn normal behavior patterns. And I would speculate that not only do people defend usual ways of behaving, but are defensive of usual ways of valuing. They will reflexively protect the patterns of valuing and of making excuses, and try to silence new patterns of valuing as themselves a threat to the usual.

For more speculative analysis about the disquieting and dangerous dynamics that make people hostile to moral reformers out of reflexive conservativeness towards immoral status quo practices, see my post “In Defense of Taking Offense”.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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