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Social Norms

Posted Oct 06 2009 10:02pm

I’m fascinated by social norms – unofficial rules that people obey without the force of the law to back them up. 

A friend of mine recently started working as a nurse at a hospital and realized she had broken a social norm when a co-worker said to her, “Oh!  I thought you were a doctor when I saw you from behind.”  My friend realized that she was wearing the “wrong” kind of lab coat for a nurse and quickly corrected her mistake. 

Recently, I read about the Dutch town of Drachten where they have removed all traffic signs and signals.  People have come up with their own methods of sharing the roads with other drivers, bikers, and pedestrians, and they actually have less serious accidents now.  People drive much more slowly and cautiously, but there is less traffic and you get to your destination more quickly.  I haven’t verified these facts, but it is an interesting experiment.  Take a look:


I’m enjoying one of the social norms at Sammy’s new school.  When the weather is nice, we pick up the children at the school’s playground behind the building.  We park in the large parking lot, get out, and collect our children.  I have yet to see 2 cars parked directly next to each other.  Everybody leaves a space between cars.  It means walking a bit further, but it also means that there is always enough room to open the car door and maneuver the child into the car seat.  A parking lot full of spaced out cars is also much safer.  Reversing out of a parking space can be difficult when there are two huge minivans on either side of you.  With all the kids around, it just makes sense. 

This is a great example of Ayn Rand’s principle that there is no conflict of interests between rational men.  It is selfish to cooperate with others in this way.  Safety is a greater value than convenience, in this case.  (It would not be a greater value at Target on a Saturday when you might have to walk a mile if only every other parking spot were used.)  Any parent who decided to break the “rules” by parking next to another car just to get a bit closer to the playground, while counting on others to follow the rule so he could reap the benefits of it, would be seeking the unearned.  This is not selfishness, but dependency. 

It’s nice to see a group of people acting rationally and selfishly in such an everyday way.   These are the Little Things that I love to pluck out of my experience and savor.

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