Descriptive Norms, or Why Your Beliefs Affect Me

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.




Scientific American has an article up discussing the difference between descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. The gist is that descriptive norms describe how things are and prescriptive norms describe how things ought to be. When it comes to affecting people’s behavior, descriptive norms tend to work much better:

In a classic study, Cialdini and colleagues manipulated the signs that were displayed in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, a site often plagued by tourists who end up grabbing some of the petrified wood to take home as a souvenir. In situations like this, the first inclination of well-meaning environmentalists might be to set a strong prescriptive norm — perhaps by saying something like, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest. This is bad, don’t do this.” The idea here would be to invoke a sense of shame and severity before asking visitors to refrain from taking the wood. But read that prescriptive message once again. Is there anything descriptive in there? Yes, of course there is. That message is not just telling you that you shouldn’t take the wood — it’s also telling you that most other people do. In fact, people were actually more likely to steal wood from the forest when they saw the sign telling them how many people tend to do it themselves, even though the very next sentence was asking them to refrain. But when the researchers simply tweaked the message to read that “the vast majority of past visitors have left the petrified wood in the park, helping to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” the thievery plummeted.

We don’t really care so much about what we should do. We care about what other people do. And then we really, really care about not being different.

The article suggests that making your support of marriage equality public on Facebook may actually make more of a difference than a lot of people think. I agree. When we make our positions publicly known, often that can be more convincing than anything else we can do.

This relates to the main issue with moderate religion. There are a number of religions out there (and other faith traditions that may or may not be classified as “religions”) that do no real direct harm on society. I was raised by a Quaker mother, and attended meeting up until I was allowed to make choices for myself. I have Unitarian Universalist friends. I know several pagans, and other religious moderates who practice non-mainstream, non-coercive religions.

These religions aren’t causing any direct harm that can be easily identified. However, that does not mean that they are not causing harm. I live in a country positively saturated in religion. Religion pervades public life in America in ways that are unheard of in other developed countries, and it leads to all sorts of horrible outcomes.

All public expressions of faith exacerbate the issue through the power of descriptive norms. The more people who identify as religious, the more it encourages other people to be religious also. Even the most non-proselytizing expression of faith reinforces the cultural message that religion is normal, and a lack of religion is weird. Nobody wants to be weird! So people are encouraged to overlook their doubts about religion in order to fit in, even if nobody is explicitly sending that message.

American Cross

People often ask me why I care that people hold religious beliefs. This is often coupled with a spoken or unspoken assertion that their religious beliefs do not affect me in a negative way. Often, I will attempt to explain that beliefs inform actions, an in any society, and especially in a democracy, everyone’s actions affect everyone else. But there is also the problem of descriptive norms.

I believe that, all other things being equal,  a more secular society is a better society. Religion, even moderate, “harmless” religion, impedes that goal. Of course, moderate religion does less harm than fundamentalist religion, but it’s still making it more difficult for our society to move in a more secular direction. It still encourages the general population to value faith above reason. It still contributes to the social stigma of atheism.

This is, of course, not to justify being a dick about it.* The fact that moderate religion is a problem doesn’t mean that it’s ok to be rude. It doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t serve useful purposes in people’s lives. It doesn’t mean that people are justified in attempting to impose their lack of religion on other people. It just means that as an atheist, I have a stake in the beliefs of my fellow members of society. This is not meant to discuss tactics at all.

This is another reason why coming out is so important. When we proudly identify as atheist (or polyamorous for that matter), that declaration speaks louder than any argument we can make. When we create a society in which it’s no longer weird to be an atheist, then we create a society where there’s one less reason to turn to religion.


*I sincerely wish that this disclaimer didn’t need to accompany every post discussing this topic, but such is life.

5 thoughts on “Descriptive Norms, or Why Your Beliefs Affect Me

  1. What a great post. I understand where you’re coming from on this issue a lot more clearly now.

  2. Thanks Wes, apparently this post struck a chord with me:

    Religion has always affected those outside the religious group. It has provided societal leaders with the ability to subdue the masses and keep peace within the society while providing justification for external conquests and genocides (read Jared Diamond for a primer). The differences between these hinge on the definition of neighbor in the “love your neighbor” mantra of nearly all religions. If one does not conform to the religious definition, any claim to be neighbors has been forfeited, and that poses a “threat to the society” (prescriptive norm) that should be eliminated.

    The scary truth is that religion and government have evolved together. It is easier to control the masses if they view their leader as holy, and easier for the masses to accept an edict when the leader has communication with the divine. People on opiates do not rebel.

    Fortunately, all of this was contingent upon the religious and government leaders having access to more information, or being able to interpret information better. When information comes from one source and the flow is regulated, only those with access make decisions. Society seems to have shifted to the point where information flows more freely and everyone can have access to it (developing countries and classified documents vs. Julian Assange aside), but may not know how to interpret it. This is where skepticism, systems thinking, and the scientific method have the most to gain. By teaching people how to assimilate, evaluate, and apply information, they can generate an informed opinion. Its the difference between being told what to think and being taught how to think. The latter is more difficult, but, now more than ever, necessary.

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