Breaking Social Norms Project Ideas

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The intentional violation of minor social norms is a fun and popular project for sociology and psychology classes. This is a great way to help students think about the role that unspoken norms play in the structuring of a society.

Social Norms

Social norms dictate substantial portions of our public and private behaviors, very often without us even realizing it. For many students, the best way to examine the role that social norms play in society is to break them and observe people's responses. This is a popular, and entertaining, project for many high school psychology, sociology, or anthropology classes.

The following ideas can help get your students started on their breaking social norms project. Please remind students that the goal is to violate a minor social norm and not to break any actual statutes or laws. Also inform students that breaking social norms can make people uncomfortable, so they need to avoid being confrontational and if someone asks them to stop, they must stop.

Breaking Social Norms Project Ideas

The following ideas are meant to give your students a foundation for designing their experiment. These can be completed individually or in groups. For each experiment, students should fully outline the test and their hypothesis before beginning.

Take a Seat

Start by observing how people treat personal space in a public setting like a mall food court or bus stop. Try to determine how people decide where to sit and which seats to leave open. When you understand the norm, break it by sitting right next to someone despite the availability of open seats elsewhere. Do not say anything or acknowledge them beyond what you would normally do. Try to gauge their reaction by watching for signs of discomfort including fidgeting, shifting poses, glaring, moving to a different seat, or asking you to move.

Role Reversal

Observe how members of the opposite sex treat friends of that same gender. Observe language cues, norms around touching and physical space, topics of conversation, etc. You will then transfer those behaviors in how you treat your friends of your same gender. Observe and record their reactions. For example, if you identify as a male then observe how a woman treats her female friends. This is how you will then treat your male friends.

Swapping Seats

Identify one of your classes that does not have assigned seats, but which has established an unspoken seating pattern. Every day sit in someone else's seat and record people's reactions.

Public Space Norms

Identify a public place and observe how people normally interact with/acknowledge others in that space. Then, put on headphones and start dancing in this space. Observe how people acknowledge/interact with you. To expand on this, conduct the experiment again with more than one-person dancing.

Asking for Food

In a public space where food is served, ask strangers if you can try a bite of their food. Record the numbers of people who say yes versus no. You can expand on this by repeating the experiment in different settings (i.e. a mall food court versus a nice restaurant).

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