Norms and Behavior

One Woman’s Quest

This is a fascinating story about a young Somali woman and her desire to sing in public after it had been outlawed.

Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychologist who researches social change, says that while we like to think that what we do is a reflection of what we think, “we’re constantly tuning ourselves to fit in with the social world around us.”

So what this work suggests is that if you change someone’s perception of what constitutes the social norm — as you convince people that the world is safe enough to sing in public even though in actual fact singing in public is incredibly dangerous — then you just might be able to move the needle on the ground. –Alix Spiegel

Action Theory Questioned

The conclusion about beliefs, norms, and behavior fascinating. I had taken a hard look at action theory in college and had fallen under the assumption that actions flow from beliefs.

But it looks like if you can change public norms, then people can behave in a way that they say they don’t believe in. This seems obvious, but it is still strange to think that norms loosen the connection between beliefs and behavior. We don’t readily acknowledge norms but are conscious of and refer continually to our beliefs.

Literature: Escape the Prison

This is a story a cynic or skeptic wouldn’t think is possible. A Somali man in jail reads Anna Karenina and it changes his life. The man doesn’t read it strictly speaking, but hears in tapped out in a type of Morse code from an adjacent doctor cellmate and he deciphers it. And it is the features of Tolstoy’s writing–the shift in perspective of several scenes; his portrayal of the trapped circumstances of the Russian noblewoman–that wrest a pulsing empathy from this man. He regains faith in his wife and direction in his life. There is a wonderful circle of relations here between the man, the doctor, the wife, Tolstoy, and “Anna Karenina.”

Breaking down class and racial barriers, the more I think of this, the more extraordinary it is: proof that literature can change a life. Listen to the account on NPR’s Rough Translation podcast: