Improving the Norm

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert had a recent column about an effort to reduce violence in Chicago. He points out that a basic problem with violent behavior is that many believe it’s just part of life, noting:

One of the most frightening aspects of the murderous violence plaguing so many urban neighborhoods across the country is the widespread notion among young people that killing somebody who ticks you off is normal. It’s something that is only to be expected, like eating when you’re hungry.

Herbert goes on to describe an initiative in Chicago called CeaseFire, which is

…trying to intervene in potentially violent situations to ward off tragic outcomes. Individuals who are most likely to be involved in violence, either as offenders or victims, are personally engaged, talked with, counseled, cajoled — whatever it takes to prevent bloodshed. Those who intervene know the streets firsthand, and in many cases are former gang members and convicts themselves.

While the immediate goal of CeaseFire is to stop the violence, the long range goal is to “change the violent norms of big-city environments.”

The program appears to be having success. According to a study by Prof. Wesley G. Skogan of Northwest University,

Over-time trends revealed that violence was down by one measure or another in six of the seven areas that were examined statistically. The broadest measure of shootings (which included attempts) declined an additional 17 to 24 percent, due to the program. In four overlapping sites there were distinctive declines in the number of persons actually shot or killed ranging from 16 to 34 percent.

CeaseFire is just one of numerous programs that take a more holistic approach to dealing with aberrant behaviors. For some time now Hobart and William Smith Colleges have been using a social norms approach to reduce binge drinking, and the program has received national attention. As an LA Times article noted in June of 2001,

The practice, called “social norms marketing,” has grown rapidly in the last three years, along with the realization that scolding, scaring, educating and even passing laws can’t stop young people from harming themselves and others. In sharp contrast to generations of adults who argued, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” the new theory encourages the young to conform, since most of their peers aren’t up to much anyway.

“The reality is, we’re herd animals and we behave in accordance with social norms and the expectations of others,” said H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., who is known as the father of social norms marketing. “We’re taking conformity behavior and using it in a positive way.”

The traditional approach to aberrant behavior is to view it in individualistic terms: if an individual misbehaves, it’s because there is something intrinsically wrong with them. The solution, according to this view, is to scare or browbeat the person into proper behavior.

However, if we take a cue from the wave/particle duality and recognize that people are inherently both individuals AND members of groups, we will recognize that only treating people as individuals is bound to be an incomplete approach. In addressing the context provided by the groups they belong to, the social norms approach helps create a complete approach to improving individual behaviors.

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About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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