The Influence of Conformity and Social Norms on Traffic Laws

On any given day, the average driver will comply with traffic laws due to the strength of social influences. Drivers on the road, passengers, police officers, and personal characteristics often affect driving behaviors. In social psychology, the driving behaviors that arise from these factors are due to conformity and social norms. Conformity is defined as “adjusting our behavior or thinking to coincide with a group standard.” These group standards or social norms are often what changes a person’s behavior or morals. This change occurs as a result of the need to belong, the fear of rejection, or simply the desire to be a part of a group without standing out. For example, a person might quit smoking because his or her group of friends frowns upon tobacco. This article explores the topic of conformity and covers the positive and negative aspects of conformity, concluding with the effect of conformity traffic laws.

Imagine yourself on the interstate in a big city, driving along with traffic that is traveling at 80 miles per hour (mph) in a 55 mph zone. Even though you know you’re breaking the law by going over the speed limit, you don’t slow down because you don’t want to be perceived as a “jerk” for slowing down everyone around you. At the same time, your conscience is telling you that you are violating the law and that you can’t afford a ticket. Studies show that you are more likely to continue to drive with the flow of traffic simply because everyone around you on the road is doing it. In big cities, this type of driving, even though it might go against one’s personal beliefs, is a social norm. In order to fit in, you are forced to conform. In one study, people were surveyed about the effectiveness of a 55 mph speed limit and their actual driving speeds in that zone. Out of the sample, 28.9 percent of the people that thought the speed limit was too low, reported driving at a higher speed. Others responded that the speed limit was somewhat useless because no one else followed it anyway, making the speed limit irrelevant, which ultimately had little effect on driving speeds. While speeding due to conformity and social norms is one of the most common driving violations that we can observe and relate to, there are more dangerous driving behaviors that drivers engage in due to various social influences.

Social and peer influences that result in a violation of traffic laws are the most common among teenagers. One study reports that drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are more likely to be involved in a fatal car accident when there are passengers in the car. Under the pressure from friends, young drivers engage in risky behaviors including speeding, swerving in and out of the traffic, street racing, and other reckless driving behavior that leads to a higher chance of making an error, which ultimately results in serious accidents. The author adds, “passengers encourage drivers to conform to the prevailing norms of their social group.” Additionally, two more studies support that teens are likely to drive recklessly if the driver believes this type of driving is expected by their peers, even if these peers are not in the car. Even though these actions are extremely dangerous and possibly fatal, this shows how society and the social environment can influence us to conform to what we perceive will make us feel accepted by a group.

Conformity can also have a positive influence on a motorist’s life. Using the principle of conformity, a social group can work together to change their member’s or friends’ driving behavior. Though conformity often carries a negative connotation, it can be used to prevent potential accidents, tickets, and/or fatalities. Before discussing how to apply this principle to drivers, we have to understand how it functions. In order to increase the likelihood for conforming behavior to occur, individuals must be in a group with at least three people, made to feel incompetent or unconfident, have one common belief or opinion, know that their behavior is being observed, and they have to admire the group’s status and/or attractiveness. However, if these characteristics are absent in the group, the likeliness for someone to conform dramatically decreases. Nevertheless, if they are all present, this could be applied in real-world circumstances.

Conforming behavior can be manipulated for good or bad, and it is easy to see in real-life circumstances. Social groups can influence a person to change their behavior with group efforts. This can be done by getting everyone in a group to voice the same opinion towards the behavior of an individual with the goal to get him/her to conform. For example, if one person within a group of people constantly exceeds speed limits, doesn’t use turn signals, and runs stop signs, that group can express that they are against this type of driving because it is dangerous and it could be fatal. When everyone in the group agrees and expresses their concerns toward these negative behaviors, the individual with risky driving behaviors is more likely to change and begin exhibiting prosocial behaviors, due to the group’s unified disapproval and concern. When an individual is made to feel insecure about their actions compared to a group or social norm, they are more likely to change and conform in order to fit in.

Another way to use conformity to increase awareness of traffic laws is by reinforcing positive punishment. For example, speeding tickets written by a police officer are a form of punishment, done in an effort to change an individual’s bad driving habits. To increase the awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence, an ad featuring popular celebrities speaking out against driving under the influence, sharing stories of losing loved ones to these types of accidents, or even just encouraging people to take a taxi after drinking can be very effective. This sort of conformity is known as mimicry or the subconscious copying of someone else. By using a famous person to spread a message, fans are more likely to conform and begin to start mimicking or copying their behaviors.

A famous example that shows the power of mimicry in conforming behavior is the popularity of “short shorts” in basketball. Coaches believed short shorts would allow for more agility and better performance. However, with the airing of professional basketball games on TV, famous players like Michael Jordan wore loose-fitting shorts. The Washington Post noted that “Michael Jordan inspired a major alteration when he appealed for a longer and baggier cut”. Even though many believed short shorts were better for agility and performance, most still followed the trend Michael Jordan and other famous players set. Shortly after, the coaches’ attitudes changed towards baggy shorts. They began to see that the same high level of performance can be achieved, even if a player isn’t wearing short shorts. This can be used as an example of how, by gaining celebrity support, awareness for following traffic laws could be raised through the reinforcement of perceived dominant ideology.

State legislators create laws to discourage deviant behavior. They do this by reinforcing punishment, such as by giving speeding tickets that are paired with a required safe driving class. This type of pairing fosters cognitive dissonance with speeding. Cognitive dissonance theory is “discomfort caused by two simultaneous inconsistent thoughts,” and can cause an uncomfortable reaction, which can change one’s attitude towards negative behaviors. A person subjected to repeated reinforced punishment after breaking traffic laws is, in theory, less likely to break traffic laws.

Finally, conformity can be used to prevent automotive accidents and catastrophes. Since everyone in a group must agree on an issue in order to pressure the group members to conform, it only takes one group member stating a different opinion for the likelihood of conforming behavior to decrease significantly. This can be applied to group standards in a positive or negative way. However, in this case, it’s negative. One study stated that college students that have friends who drive under the influence are more likely to drive under the influence themselves. These students conform and go along with their friends in the car, overlooking the dangers of impaired driving. This behavior is also found in Ashch’s 1940 conformity experiment. For example, a person might not speak up because they don’t want to get put down for speaking up with an unpopular opinion or get called a “sissy.” However, if one person speaks up and reminds everyone that it’s not a good idea because it’s against the law and dangerous, it will make a great difference in preventing drunk driving. It only takes one person to change the group members’ minds and shift their behavior from risky to safe. Though the individual might create tension in the group, ultimately their actions will be safer.