The Malleability of Student-Perceived Norms and School Climate

Project Date:
Oct 2012
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Recent research suggests that the problem of widespread social conflict in schools – often labeled a "climate" of conflict – is driven by students’ perceptions of collective norms of conflict, which describe the typicality and desirability of behaviors that escalate or condone conflict among students at school. From this perspective, the best strategy for shifting a climate of conflict is not to address students’ personal values or beliefs, but to alter their perceptions of these collective norms.

Theories of social norms suggest that certain members of a social group play a disproportionate role in creating and reinforcing the norms of a group. These influential “social referents” are individuals who are highly connected within a social network, such that their behavior is frequently observed and marked as important by other members of the group. Building on a successful pilot experiment within one school, social psychologist Elizabeth Paluck will undertake an ambitious multi-school experiment to test whether targeting certain social referents within a network changes the overall level and pattern of conflict for the entire network. She seeks to address longstanding social science questions about the spread of social norms, and the reproduction and change of a community’s overall behavioral patterns, or climate. Paluck expects student social referents to have a significant influence on their peers’ perceptions of norms and behaviors regarding conflict at their school.

Using a novel experimental methodology, Paluck will survey sixty middle schools in New Jersey and identify key individuals – social referents – at each school. A randomly selected subset of social referents within half of the total school sample will participate in an anti-conflict behavioral campaign program. The experiment will use repeated social network surveys and behavioral records to measure both the diffusion of anti-conflict norms and behavior from referents to peers within a school, and the overall level of anti-conflict norms and behavior for each school. Paluck will test whether cues from influential social referents are transmitted to their peers through everyday social interaction. She will also track the directional pathway of these cues and test whether diffusing cues from these referents is sufficient to alter the nature of collective norms and the level of behavior throughout the entire network.


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