Most people believe that they are individuals and that they do things out of their own free will, but according to behavioural scientist Breanna Wright (BehaviourWorks Australia), we’re actually really strongly influenced by what others are doing. This is what us “layman’s” may refer to as social norms.

We take our social cues from observing what others around us are doing, for example: joining a queue. This is essentially because we adopt the behaviours of those around us in order to belong and choose the path with the least resistance to make our lives easier.

Marketing companies use this science to manipulate us all the time. An example of this is when electricity companies started introducing graphs and charts on bills showing the household how much energy they used compared to their neighbours or “the social norm”. This encourages the over users to scale back and the under users to be more liberal. And why? Because we like to be normal.

So what we can take from this precedent of behaviour modification is that telling people they are killing the planet by using too much energy does not change their consumption habits. However, according to Wright, showing people that they are using more energy than other people in their street did!

If you take shaking hands as an example of a social norm being adhered to somewhat unconsciously, people will usually shake three to four times because that’s a social norm and what feels comfortable. If we consciously continue the handshake past the norm and drag it out to eight to ten shakes, it gets awkward and uncomfortable.