I enjoyed the episode entitled ‘Morals and Norms’ from the BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Human Zoo’. It’s about ‘the way we do things round here’, how we learn this, and the consequences of breaking those rules.

The process starts early – even at school there are ‘rules’ about where we hang our coats, put our shoes, how we talk to our teachers, how we play a particular game.

Some of what we learn from our parents is from what they tell us explicitly (“Eat your main course first, then you can have dessert.”), but a good deal comes from watching what they do, and mimicking them in an endeavour to ‘be good’ or to ‘fit in’ – for example, noticing that no-one interrupts when Grandad is talking, picking up the message that ‘it’s not the done thing’.

We tend to follow what other people do – sometimes even when we’re not sure about it or whether it’s sensible, right, or right for us – and peer pressure can be a very powerful force. The programme explores the concepts of ‘norm followers’ and ‘norm enforcers’ – I recognise these, and can think of several occasions on which I’ve acted as both – as well as other occasions when I’ve (knowingly or not) broken ‘the rules’, too. Often these rules have a positive effect – helping us live with and alongside each other harmoniously – but it can be fun, and sometimes healthy, to challenge the status quo!

There’s a story that goes around about the ‘Five Monkeys Experiment’ – if you’ve never heard it, this sums it up:


There’s a lot of debate as to whether this experiment ever actually took place, but it’s one way of illustrating how we pick up rules/norms over time and, if we don’t ever question them, run the risk of perpetuating unnecessary, unhealthy or harmful behaviours. To give another example from my own experience:

I started work in a local branch of a UK bank many years ago. Due to the mergers that had previously happened, at the time I joined, we had two branches in the same high street only two doors apart, with a church in between. The person who undertook my induction informed me (in all seriousness) that “we don’t talk to the staff at the other branch.”. I couldn’t make sense of this – if we ran out of a piece of stationery for example, why wouldn’t we borrow one from them? But I was young and naiive, and wanted to fit in, so I went along with it. I didn’t know anyone at the other branch, so didn’t feel I was missing out particularly, and there was no motivation for me to do anything about it.

It wasn’t until one of my colleagues (who had also become a friend) was transferred from my branch to the other one a year or so later, that this ‘rule’ was well and truly scrapped. After that, staff at both branches got to know each other, shared resources, and even had joint Christmas parties – until the branches were eventually rationalised into one a few years later. If my colleague hadn’t been transferred, though, I wonder how long it would have taken us to change things – or if we would have?