On Norms and Expectations

I’ve been thinking a lot about norms, customs, and traditions. Basically, a norm can be compared to a default template for behavior.

Norms can have two forms: descriptive or prescriptive. Descriptive norms merely describe what most people do. For example, most people sleep at night, and work during the day. This is a statement of fact — it is a norm in our community. But this norm doesn’t really describe what ought to take place. Some might argue that there are prudential reasons for adhering to this norm, but few people would describe this custom as an ought, or consider a bad person for violating it. It’s just the default for people to sleep at night and work during the day, and because it’s the default, there are good, prudential reasons for going along with it. This would be a good example of a descriptive norm.

Prescriptive norms describe what ought to be the case. Now, some norms lay claim on everyone — for example, everyone should wash their hands after using the restroom. This is a custom, tradition, or norm that is definitely prescriptive. You should do this. That’s the essence of a prescriptive norm.

Other prescriptive norms are more flexible — they don’t lay claim on individuals, but merely lay claim on the aggregate. For example, I don’t think that everyone couple should be a stay at home mother. I don’t think this norm should prescribe behavior for every individual couple. There should be give and take on this norm, and I think even in communities where this is a norm, there is give and take. Few people want to hold this as a template that every individual should adhere to. Rather, we recognize that in the aggregate, when this ceases to be a norm, there are drastic changes and consequences in society. Our very understanding, for example, of the purposes of marriage can change.

I think it is possible to lament the changing norms of society without judging or scrutinizing the choices of individuals. For example, I think we see far too many mothers dividing their attention between children and a career — it is no longer a norm for a mother to dedicate her time to child raising. But I can say that without judging any particular mother with a career. Because I see think this norm should be binding on the aggregate, but not necessarily on the granular level of the individual. Individuals can and should be free to make decisions based on individual inspiration and the needs of their family, while a community on a whole can try to normalize — that is, enforce a norm — committed stay-at-home mothers in the aggregate.

For that reason, I think it’s sad that it’s hard to lament changing norms without offending everyone who makes a different choice. I think it really is possible to hold a norm as ideal without demeaning the choices of individuals.

Yet at the same time, I don’t think it’s possible for us to have norms without individuals feeling pressured by society, in some way, to follow them. That’s what norms do. Even descriptive norms do this to some extent. When the majority of people act a certain way, we anticipate that an individual we meet will act that way. And when we know that others anticipate that we will act a certain way, and when we know that they know that we know that they anticipate that we act a certain way, we feel as if we are somehow committing a wrong by violating their expectations. There’s no way around that — it’s a social fact. We feel twinges of guilt when we defy the expectations of others, even when we feel we have made the right decision.

This is ok. This is how communities work. This is how communities normalize values that it believes should be practiced on the aggregate, even if individuals here and there deviate from the practice. And so it makes perfect sense that those don’t fit the mold, who don’t follow the templates, will feel out of place or that they don’t belong. It’s natural to feel that way. And, whenever norms are in place, it will be almost inevitable. It’s hard to have norms without those who violate them — even if they have good reason to — feeling alienated or judged for doing so.

It seems to me that many people complain because they feel pressured into following a norm that they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they are an exception to. For example, some couples elect not to have children. Other couples decide that both of them need to work, rather than stay at home and raise children. Some individuals decide not to get married at all. And in each of these cases, there may be very good reasons for making those decisions. But we as a society should, nonetheless, preserve norms that make these behaviors minority behaviors — that is, it shouldn’t be normal (in the sense that most people do it that way). And that means that the couple who chooses not to have children may very well be asked, more often than they would like, when or if they plan to have children, and the individual who elects not to marry may be asked, more often that he or she might like, how his or her dating life is going, or if they want to be set up on a blind date, or whatever.

And in that context, those who make decisions to violate those norms are going to feel judged, even if they aren’t. They’re going to feel scrutinized, even if they aren’t. And the solution is not to dismantle the norms. The solution is for those individuals to reflect and confirm that they are making the right choices, and press forward regardless of the feared scrutiny — and for the rest of us to be careful to always treat others with warmth, respect, and friendship, even if they violate our expectations. But it is not incumbent on us to simply never expect anything at all of others, since holding generalized expectations — even if we recognize that not everyone will meet those expectations — is pretty much the essence of a norm in the first place.

My conclusion: righteous norms are a good and necessary thing — even if individuals who have good reason to violate them feel judged for doing so. Being expected by others to behave in certain ways comes with the territory of being a member of a community. Let’s not bash norms merely because there exists exceptions. Let’s do reach out to those exceptions with warmth and friendship, but little we do will help them not feel slightly (socially) uneasy about their decisions, so long as a sturdy norm remains in place. But I think that’s probably ok, and preferable to a society with no prescriptive norms at all (which is likely impossible anyways).

41 thoughts on “On Norms and Expectations

  1. LDSP, excellent point. It appears to me that the Book of Mormon, when it makes sweeping comments on society, is also discussing norms.

  2. Interesting post. Are you also saying that a society should have a certain healthy rules or taboos which are enforced, not by law, but by social pressure? Judgement and shame would be central to preserving the general rule? Is there any other way to retain a rule without resorting to negatives like shame? Rewards perhaps, tax deductions, health care vouchers, free IVF? Washing hands is an absolute rule, though a minor offense. Deciding not to have children is not something anyone can reasonable sit in absolute judgement on, yet it is extremely serious because it can obliterate the tax base. Interesting conundrum.

  3. nate, I don’t see shame (defined as social disapproval) as an entirely bad thing. I think that when people behave badly, they should feel shame. For example, I think it is perfectly fine for a man who commits adultery to feel shame in addition to guilt.

    The question at hand is, what about norms such as going on a mission, having children, maintaining activity in the Church? One of the claims I tried to make above is that any time a certain behavior is normal, people are going to feel expected to behave that way. And whenever we violate the expectations of others, to some degree, we are likely to feel shame — we are likely to feel as if we have wronged others. And so I think it’s largely unavoidable. We can, of course, reach out in warmth and fellowship to those who violate expectations, but as long as a behavior is normalized (that is, that norms exist), there is going to be social discomfort on the part of those who violate those expectations (even if they have good reason).

    And I think that’s OK. That’s what communities do. They build sets of communal expectations, and even in righteous communities full of love, people who don’t fit the template may feel somewhat scrutinized for it.

  4. Also, one of my biggest beefs with statist philosophies is that people are no longer seen as people, but “tax base.” Children are a divine heritage from the Lord, not some resource like coal or oil that governments need to survive.

  5. I think it’s impossible to not have norms. For a long time it was normal to disapprove of homosexuality. This made those who approved of homosexuality feel judged, etc., as you say. Now it’s the norm to approve of homosexuality, which makes those who disapprove of it feel judged, etc. So there will be a norm. The question is which norm (on this and other issues) is better.

  6. Agellius, agreed. I wish I had more time to explore this idea in my original post.

    If it is indeed true that normal behavior — that is, the behavior that most people do — informs our expectations of others, then deviants from the normal will feel judged to some degree. It’s inevitable.

    Which means, as you said, there is no way not to have norms. If most people disapprove of homosexual behavior, then those who don’t disapprove of it are going to feel judged. And in the brave new world where most people approve of homosexual behavior, those who disapprove of it are going to feel judged.

    And this is why the tolerance movement is ultimately hollow. It cannot sustain its own premises. Once tolerance of a certain lifestyle is the norm, those who hold older values are going to face the same perceived intolerance that those who originally approved of the lifestyle felt.

  7. Norms in the Mormon culture are very interesting. Just to name one example, there is the norm that “young men should go on a mission.” I once got into a lengthy debate with a non-member who claimed that going on a mission is a “requirement” for a young man. I pointed out that if definitely is not a requirement. You can not go on a mission and still be active in church, still get your endowments, still pay tithing, etc. So, it is not a “requirement” under any definition of the word. However, there definitely is social pressure for young men to go on a mission that may make it *feel* like a requirement. That is where social norms come in.

  8. I’m not convinced that shame ever works towards God’s ways.

    Guilt is regretting what you’ve done.
    Shame is regretting who you are.

    Guilt can inspire us to change.
    Shame seldom does.

    Guilt is the tool of a wise man
    Shame is the tool of an abuser.

  9. H_nu,

    If you read what we say, you will see that we are defining shame very, very differently than you are. You are using a narrow definition that psychologists have invented. We’re using the word shame in an entirely different way.

    In the vocabulary that we are using, guilt is feeling that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is feeling that others disapprove of your behavior, or that they are disappointed in the way you’ve behaved.

    In that sense, shame is a necessary tool in any community. It’s the primary way social norms are really enforced.

  10. H_nu, the best way to describe how we’re using the word shame is to imagine the sentence, “I’m ashamed of my behavior.” In this sense, how is encouraging a healthy sense of shame when we behave badly the tool of an abuser? That’s how society’s function — by informing people through social means when they have violated important norms.

  11. “The question is which norm (on this and other issues) is better.”

    Precisely. Someone was arguing with me on FB about how it wasn’t right for society to force a cultural norm of traditional heterosexual marriage on people who felt differently. I pointed out the irony of his statement, since he very much wants gay marriage to be legal in all 50 states, thus forcing a cultural norm on people who feel differently.

    The question we should ask isn’t “is it right to have social norms?”, but rather “which norms are better for an ordered, balanced, healthy society?”.

    When people take the time to look at the myriad studies of juvenile delinquency, they find that kids don’t get into nearly as much trouble when they have a married mother and father at home. Period. End of story. All the data points to that. Now, the sociologists can’t answer why that is the case, but the data is undeniable. Broken homes produce broken children. (I am well aware of the fact that it isn’t political correct to say “broken home” anymore; I care not a whit about what is politically correct). Broken children get into trouble, and cause trouble for others, leading to less peaceful civic society.

    While it will anger some people, we need to get back to Mayberry. Andy Griffith and Ozzy and Harriet Nelson.

    The answers to what ails our society lie right before us. Having strong families will go light years towards healing, but there are no quick fixes.

  12. Geoff, would you agree that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we have those kinds of norms? Do you think they serve a useful purpose in the Mormon community?

  13. LDSP, it is definitely a good thing. Norms create a voluntary sense of community. Every group, no matter how much it claims it does not, has certain norms that are enforced through community pressure. I grew up in a liberal, tolerant hippie community where people supposedly rejected norms, but of course hey had all kinds of norms. The stores only had organic foods. You were encouraged in the schools and in the community to participate in anti-war demonstrations and environmental causes. So, even in a community that would claim it rejects norms there were definitely strong social structures and pressures in place. So, when it comes to the LDS culture encouraging missions, it is exactly in line with how all communities should function.

  14. I think the shaming element of norms can be positive for the one being shamed into righteous behavior, but I think it is negative on those who do the shaming and judgement. We have to remember that church is supposed to be this hospital for sick people like Elder Holland said, not a place for perfect people. It also celebrates free agency. So the norms are there, but along with the norms, acceptance and love anyway, because that is their choice to make, their life to live. Maybe a bit like God said in the garden of Eden: “You shall not partake of the forbidden fruit, nevertheless, you can choose, for it is given to you, but remember the consequences.” “God wants all young men to go on missions, nevertheless, you are free to choose for yourself, you are under no compulsion, and we will continue to love you, and you can continue to serve fully in the church.”

  15. If anyone here really thinks that “shaming people is a part of the gospel”, can you please reread DC 121, and find some scriptures that validate your viewpoint?

  16. h_nu, I’m not even going to humor that we a response, since if you actually read what we are saying, rather than fixating on a word (which, again, we are using very differently than you define it), you’ll see that we’re saying nothing of the sort.

  17. All we’re saying is that in any righteous community with a sturdy set of norms, someone who misbehaves is going to sense that others disapprove of their actions — and perhaps even feel embarrassed for the way they have behaved — no matter how graciously others respond to their misbehavior, and that this is not only inevitable, but healthy. This is shame. You feel shame when you are embarrassed for having misbehaved. This has nothing to do with people shaming you (they can respond the most graciously and loving way possible), and everything to do with your awareness of having done something wrong and others knowing about it. In a community with sturdy norms, people can respond as lovingly and generously as possible to someone who has sinned, and that person will still feel a sense of social embarrassment for having committed sin. That is what norms do. It cannot happen any other way. It is impossible not to have such norms.

    Nobody is recommending anyone “shame” anyone, or that people should considers themselves as people, rather than their actions, as bad.

  18. I would agree with LDSP that we are talking about two completely different things. If I go to a restaurant on a Sunday and the bishop drives by and sees me come out I may feel a bit ashamed *regardless of what the bishop does or says*. Most likely the bishop will say nothing at all and I still might feel a bit of shame. Why? Because I am part of a community, a ward, where in general we try to avoid going to restaurants on Sundays. Note there is no “shaming” going on. This is just part of being part of a community.

  19. Until I see some LDscripture or LDapostles approvingly use “shame” as part of the gospel, I’m going to chalk this up to LDPhilosophies of men.

    It is an opinion that shame is healthy. I’m not convinced, even with your “watered down” version. Trust me, I know how to read… I just still disagree, and have asked you to provide ANY support from the LDS scriptures or apostles. You choose not to do that, fine. Unconvinced from lake of evidence.

  20. h_nu, again, I don’t think we’re even speaking the same language, nor are you really understanding anything we’re saying. I also think it is rather uncontroversial that we should be ashamed of sin.

  21. Right, LDSPh,
    You make an assumption about common knowledge and belief.
    I say “I don’t make that assumption, please provide some evidence for that assumption”
    and you say, “everyone believes that”
    That’s not dialogue LDSPh, that’s dogma.
    Could you at least recognize that not everyone shares your assumption and make an effort at examining it?
    Thanks,

  22. Hnu:

    Are you actually saying we should *not* be ashamed of sin? Can you give any LDS authorities for that proposition?

  23. h_nu, I looked up “ashamed” in the Topical Guide, and found that mostly the Bible uses the word in “be not ashamed.” So I think you are right that the sentiment of shame is something that is negative. There are a few times, like Ps. 25 3, which says “let them be ashamed which transgress,” and others like “ashamed when they had committed abomination” from Jer 6:15. “bear thine own shame for thy sins” Ezekial 16:52, they are confounded, for they are brought unto shame, that seek my hurt. Ps. 71:24.

    But whether or not it is negative or not, it is very real, and very human, and unescapable dimension of our interaction with God and the world. Shame is the primary emotion of fallen man. It was the first thing Adam and Eve felt after taking the forbidden fruit. Shame is deeply woven into our humanity, our sense of modesty, our embarrassment of excrement and flatulance, our desire for dignity and respect, and feelings of being judged, disrespected, of being treated like someone lesser.

    “Fear of God” in the Biblical sense, is all about shame. Being righteous in the Biblical sense is all about being able to stand in the presence of God, and not be ashamed.

    “Shaming” someone, is wrong, as you’ve noted from D&C 121, but feeling shame is simply a very human emotion, which is neither good nor evil, but a fact of life.

  24. Agellius,
    I can make an argument for that, with a couple of caveats…
    But, if others here are unwilling to consider their assumptions, why spill the ink?

    The caveat, is that one can feel: guilt, remorse, and a 100 other healthy emotions, but that shame is not one of the healthy ones.

    So, the balls in LDSPh’s court, if he (or anyone else) is willing to reconsider the assumption, I’ll lay out an argument.

  25. H_nu, I can’t do what you ask, because we are using two different definitions.

  26. But this cannot be; we must … acknowledge to our everlasting shame that all his judgments are just; Alma 12;15

    And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God. D&C 42:91

    Wherefore, confound your enemies; call upon them to meet you both in public and in private; and inasmuch as ye are faithful their shame shall be made manifest. D&C 71:7

    We ask thee, Holy Father, to confound, and astonish, and to bring to shame and confusion, all those who have spread lying reports abroad … D&C 109:29

  27. Good Agellius.
    Now we have a starting place.
    So by your interpretation of these verses, Shame is a part of God’s plan of happiness, and He wants it to be used? How do you interpret these verses?

  28. h_nu, This is exactly what I mean — you are not listening to us, and are not on the same page at all. Nobody is talking about shaming people.

  29. No LDP,
    Someone other than you has provided LDS scripture that, at least on a cursory level, do talk about shaming people.

    To wit
    DC 71, DC 109, DC 42, but not the alma one quoted.

    So you assert “No LDS person ever tries to shame other folks” and then Agellius brings up 3 scriptures that appear to support shaming other people. I’m claiming that as a victory. You can’t claim that I’M the one not listening to other folks when other folks bring up 3 data points that invalidate YOUR private theory and interpretation.

  30. Hnu:

    You write, “So by your interpretation of these verses, Shame is a part of God’s plan of happiness, and He wants it to be used? How do you interpret these verses?”

    I was commenting on LDSP’s statement that “it is rather uncontroversial that we should be ashamed of sin.” I was surprised that anyone who calls himself a Christian would deny that.

    I think the verses I cited ought to prove that point to a Mormon, as plenty of other biblical verses prove it to non-Mormon Christians. If shame is ever warranted, it’s as a result of sin. The idea that shame is *never* warranted, even on account of sin, I find simply bizarre.

  31. Agellius,
    Are you less puzzled if that same person declared “The caveat, is that one can feel: guilt, remorse, and a 100 other healthy emotions, but that shame is not one of the healthy ones.” and “Guilt is regretting what you’ve done. Guilt can inspire us to change. Guilt is the tool of a wise man”

    I am not arguing that we shouldn’t feel bad when we sin. I’m arguing that the type of emotion we choose to feel on account of sin can work to our detriment, rather than our own good. I defy those who claim that “peer-pressure” righteousness is a good thing. And that’s what this type of OP reminds me of, people culturally living gospel standards for fear of not fitting in or worse, social ostracism, instead of a true love of God and a true hatred of sin. By teaching this telestial law (obey or you won’t fit in), we teach members that there is NOTHING holy in the Church to be had, other than the vague, fleeting, sense of conformity rather the Gods holy sense of Righteousness.

  32. h_nu,

    As someone who has gone through periods of extreme personal doubt and despair I am infinitely grateful for the peer pressure that kept me living a moderately decent life even when I personally no longer cared. Peer pressure kept me from doing stupid things that would have made putting my life back on track significantly harder.

    Think of it like Alma 32: 13-14. Being compelled to be humble is inferior to being truly humble but still brings greater blessings than persisting in your pride. Similarly I would posit that following commandments out of social pressure is inferior to following them out of faith but still better than not following them at all.

  33. Next up: a discussion about how we should never feel proud of our childrens’ accomplishments because we are being prideful and Satan is all about pride and therefore we are being Satanic. As my bishop once said, there are two kinds of pride, the good kind and the bad kind. There are also at least two kinds of shame, and one of them is harmful and one is not.

  34. Hnu:

    I see you asserting that “shame is not one of the healthy ones”, but I don’t see any argument which supports the assertion.

    “I am not arguing that we shouldn’t feel bad when we sin.”

    No, only that we shouldn’t be ashamed. Again I contend that that’s a strange idea and anti-scriptural.

    “I’m arguing that the type of emotion we choose to feel on account of sin can work to our detriment, rather than our own good.”

    I wasn’t aware that we could choose what emotions to feel. Certainly you can choose what names to call your emotions. In fact, I would argue that you feel shame when you sin whether you like it or not (and who likes it?), and whether you choose to call it by that name or not. We can banish the name from our vocabulary, but we can’t banish shame.

  35. JSG, I’m grateful you’re at least recognizing at is an inferior emotion in terms of helpfulness.

    Agellius, It is true, I have not yet made an argument, I don’t feel ready yet and am still studying it out in my mind, the best way to do that.
    If you’re not aware that you chose the feelings that you dwell on, and that the things you dwell on influence your future feelings, I suggest you learn about it. The plastic model of the mind, etc. It’s kind of an extension from psychologists who teach people to stop saying, “It makes me so mad when …” to “I don’t like XXX and I get frustrated when …”. You see, God created us to be actors, those who choose what actions they perform. But for some reason, a lot of use choose to react and blame our emotions on others. Instead of taking responsibility for our thoughts, words, deeds, and feelings.

    And, Agellius, I’d like it better if you were to argue that, “Agellius feels shame when he sins whether he likes it or not.” and not speak to other people’s experience. It helps show some humility when you recognize that you only know your life experiences and not others. Once I figure out a logical way to explain how I feel, I’ll do so, but in the current accusatory tone, I really don’t feel safe too.

  36. h_nu

    While I agree that peer pressure is an inferior emotion in terms of eternal motivation I wouldn’t say that it is inferior in terms of helpfulness. It helped me remain close to the gospel and improve my life at a time when I was lacking in internal motivation to do the right thing. Very few people are ready to leapfrog all the way from disbelief to celestial motivation. I know I couldn’t have. Peer pressure righteousness was the stepping stone that helped me get higher than I otherwise could have.

    In fact, I’m not sure any other tool could have helped me over that particular patch of rebellion in my life. I wasn’t spiritually receptive, so there goes the great change of heart approach. And as a natural cynic being showered with love and concern just hardened my heart. Social norms and a healthy does of shame was really the only thing that got through to me long enough for me to do something positive. Sure, there was a little emotional pain involved but the long term character growth was more than worth the cost.

  37. Hnu writes, “I’d like it better if you were to argue that, ‘Agellius feels shame when he sins whether he likes it or not.’”

    It wouldn’t make sense for me to say that, since I wasn’t making a statement about my own personal feelings. Rather, I was making a contention regarding human nature in general.

    But note my language: I never said “all human beings feel shame when they sin”, nor did I say that any particular human being feels shame when he sins. What I said is that “I would argue” that people feel shame when they sin.

    Now that statement makes a few assumptions, which I thought were fair to make in a conversation among people who call themselves Christians: mainly that we love God and that we feel a moral obligation try to please him in all things. Certainly there are some human beings who don’t love God or feel a moral obligation towards him, and there might even be some who call themselves Christians who don’t fit that assumption. Such people might not feel shame when they do something which they know is wrong and displeases God.

    But it seems to me that you are arguing that you can (a) love God and feel a moral obligation try to please him in all things, and yet (b) not feel shame when you do something which you know is wrong and displeases him. My response to that is, that if shame doesn’t occur in that context, then it doesn’t exist at all. There must not be any actually existing emotion to which the word “shame” attaches. In which case the scriptures are simply wrong, since they use the word over and over.

    In summary, my contention is that shame exists and, as the scriptures attest, is appropriate in some contexts; given that it is appropriate in some contexts, then it must be appropriate in the case of a Christian who knows that he has displeased God; and that if it’s not appropriate in that context then it’s not appropriate ever, in which case the scriptures don’t know what they’re talking about.

    As far as an “accusatory tone”, I have no idea what you’re referring to.

  38. “Once I figure out a logical way to explain how I feel, I’ll do so, but in the current accusatory tone, I really don’t feel safe too.”

    Say, is that an attempt to shame me? ; )

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