Group Norms

I regularly bike on a five mile path encircling Burke Lake, near my home. Since bikes share the narrow path with pedestrians, I ring a bell as I come behind pedestrians going in the same direction. When there are several of them together, it is safest if they all move to the same side of the path; this gives the most distance between the bike and then nearest pedestrian. Sometimes, however, a group splits, with some of them moving to one side and some moving to the other side. Then I have to slow down more in order to safely move between them.

We can interpret the desired behavior here as following a “group norm”, i.e., a social norm that specifies the behavior of groups, rather than the behavior of individuals. An individual norm might be to move to the side of the path when you hear a bike bell, while a group norm might be to move your group together to one side of the path when you hear a bike bell.

It seems to me that while asians are a minority of the pedestrian groups on my path, they are the majority of the groups who split, moving to both sides of the path. This suggests that asians are less familiar with the concept of a group norm, at least for informal groups like “people walking together on a path.” I asked an asian friend who confirmed this – they couldn’t think of an asian group norm. This seems interesting given that asians are often said to be more “group oriented.” Perhaps they attend more to behaving correctly toward groups, but less to making sure their group behaves correctly.

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  • bcg

    Other group norms Asians don’t know about: Walking on escalators; waiting in lines.

  • This seems like a massive generalization based on minimal anecdotal evidence. For that matter what group norms are there for other cultural or ethnic groups? I can’t think of any that apply specific to say Jews or American blacks.

  • q

    Other group norms Asians don’t know about: Walking on escalators; waiting in lines.

    Go to any subway station in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong or South Korea, and you will see many, many Asians waiting in line and walking on escalators (on the left, those on the right stand). In fact, at least in Taiwan, Asians are very well-behaved in waiting in orderly fashion on the side of the door, though this may be a function of the lines on the ground.

  • blink

    I think the bell creates some ambiguity in the social interaction which creates the need for the “group norm”. Perhaps interactions like this are more structured in Asian cultures so there is less need for such norms. Try calling out “On your left!” next time and I believe all groups will move together to avoid your bike.

  • Oscar_Cunningham

    When a narrow bridge has a lot of pedestrians on it they tend (in my experience) to arrange themselves so that the people on one side are going one way, and the people on the other side are going in the opposite direction.

    My dad says that when he goes to work in Japan this just doesn’t happen, and he senses that it would “never occur to them”.

  • Ryan Cecil

    My first thought was to escalators, as well. In Tokyo, everyone who stands on the escalator stands to the left, and everyone who walks on the elevator goes to the right. At a train or bus stop, everyone lines up politely on either side of the door.

    What you’re talking about is something different than group norms. Like blink says, maybe it’s because it’s so unexpected, and there are different types of group reactions.

    Just a guess from my experience in Japan, it might be because each individual is unwilling, out of politeness, to push (physically or verbally) someone to one side with them. Everyone makes their own decision about where to move, but no one wants to suddenly tell the others, “You all, quickly move this way!” Maybe this has more to do with management style.

  • I’ve heard the same about not forming lines in China, though that’s true in lots of places. You could quantify this by going to McDonalds around the world and seeing how many bodies from the cash register it took for the lines to break down, where it was just a mass of people trying to jockey for the next open spot in some line.

    In America, lines go all the way back, no milling mass. In Barcelona, it seemed to go somewhere between 5 to 10 people before there was a milling mass. The way others have told me, it’s 5 or under in China, but I’ve never been there, and don’t know what region of China they were talking about.

    That’s the trouble with “collectivist” or “group-oriented” — what collective or group? What size? It seems like that typically refers to the extended family or clan. But individualist cultures that aren’t so deferential toward the clan are more supportive of even larger group norms and institutions, those that encompass all clans — they are “civic-minded,” not “collectivist.”

  • Matt

    Adhering to relatively rigidly defined roles within group (and finding this satisfying) might be a different dimension than having formalised and organized in group-out group interactions?

  • DaveL

    Obviously these are only anecdotes but:

    1. In China, standing in line to see Mao’s tomb, any open space behind you, in front of you, or to your side would be immediately invaded by other people in the “line.” Little rural grannies would elbow past you if you left any space they could squeeze through. This is partly (I think) about Chinese norms of what constitutes “crowded,” and partly about queuing.

    2. In London, it has always been my experience that there is no consensus about which side of the sidewalk to walk on. People seemed to me to randomly choose a side, which led to near-collisions all the time.

    • Divide

      In London, it has always been my experience that there is no consensus about which side of the sidewalk to walk on. People seemed to me to randomly choose a side, which led to near-collisions all the time.

      This is probably due to the fact that some half of people there are immigrants conditioned to walk on right side of the sidewalk, whereas the British instinct tells the other half to use the wrong^Wleft side, so both sides got their autopilots confused. I’ve observed similar behaviour when I lived in Ireland some time ago.

      Tangentially, this also reminds me of a factory I’d worked in; most workers where right-side immigrants, so right-side traffic naturally formed on factory floor, but on the doors there were ‘this way’ and ‘no entry’ signs placed in the left-side manner.

      People would, apparently without much thought, switch sides when approaching the door. With hundreds of people going in both directions on shift changes, I’d been always surprised that there hadn’t been any accident there.

  • Joe

    Why did you immediately jump to a racist reason that explains this phenomenon? just off the top of my head I can think of a number of possible explanations, none of which involve race. You didn’t even mention the size of the group in your analysis. so, based on the limited information you gave, here are some hypothesis:

    *when people attempt to move out of your way, they simply move to the closer edge.
    *depending on size, maybe there is not enough room on one side of the path for a larger group to get out of your way, so they are forced to split to let you pass.
    *maybe they are not groups at all, but rather individuals who happen to be walking close to each other. Sort of like a traffic jam of pedestrians, so are not actually splitting the group at all.
    *they don’t know what the bell you ring is supposed to warn them of, so whatever “group norms” are usually applied in passing situations isn’t applied.
    *personal interactions between the members of the group also might come into play. Maybe they are in a heated discussion and are using the physical distance created by splitting as a type of body language. i.e, a subconscious show of emotional distance.

    Basically, i’m just making shit up. but all of these speculations are just as plausible as your racist one.

    • Michael Bishop

      Joe, you would seem to want to forbid people from considering possible differences in norms across racial groups. I don’t have great confidence in Robin’s theory, but he should be able to discuss it without being attacked. Instead, let’s look for testable implications.

    • Joe

      i’ll admit, i was pretty heated when i wrote that first comment. so i figured i’d come back and look at it again, after cooling down for awhile. maybe see if I wanted to add or subtract from what I said earlier.

      I thought I’d be able to come back and discuss “group norms”, but I still can’t get over this post. This blog is titled “Overcoming Bias” and this post is all about bias! It lumps ALL people from asia together, basically assuming that everyone from Japan, China, Russia, the Koreas, Vietnam, and many others, all act the same way. It completely disregards the fact that each of those countries have distinct cultures and social norms. the definition given of a “group norm” in this post implies that its specific to whatever culture one is a part of and that different cultures would have different group norms, but than completely ignores the fact that different cultures exist! instead of saying that maybe asian’s group norms in this specific example possibly might be different than the authors, the author straight up says that asians are less familiar with group norms.

      that is like saying that the british are less familiar with driving norms because they drive on the other side of the road.

      now I’m all worked up again. FUCK.

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        this post is all about bias! It lumps ALL people from asia together, basically assuming that everyone from Japan, China, Russia, the Koreas, Vietnam, and many others, all act the same way. . . . now I’m all worked up again. FUCK.

        It may help you to remain calm if you notice that the post simply does not do this. The post just does not say that every individual from every one of these cultures acts in exactly the same way. That is a misreading on your part.

  • Take your meds, Joe. We know they’re not effective, but at least signal to us that you want to help yourself.

    • Joe

      thanks for implying that I’m crazy instead of replying to any thing that I said in my comment. You are teh wins at internet.

      • Konkvistador

        You did overreact. Quite a bit.

        Its silly of you to pretend there aren’t treads or peculiarities that on average extend to the entire group of East Asians living in lets say the US. Especially since we have so many document group differences in acheivment (this implies either culture or genes since I doubt *Institiutional racism” magically helps East Asian Americans do better than average).

        In short I don’t see why anecdotal observations are any less valid for certain subgrups than they are for the entire group.

  • tim

    I was prepared to defend Robin on the basis that he’s not actually stereotyping Asians in any negative sense – the example of lines is a good one, in that we assume being able to form stable queues is good, but is really only useful in a culture that requires people to stand and wait in line. However, he is generalizing about a billion plus people from a ridiculously low sample – random people walking in his area, and a single friend. Point Joe.

    • Konkvistador

      I don’t think he [Joe] has a point. Robin is generalizing on Asians in his country. Making observations on their culture or subculture is as valid as making observations of any other subculture (or the dominant one).

      Also its odd that he first accuses Robin of racism and them scolds him for generalizing Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and *Russians*. Silly.

  • Lo Statuz

    People bike for exercise. Then they do everything they possibly can to avoid slowing down and speeding up again, which takes more work.

    • Aron

      so true!

      And the failure for someone to get out of the way in the most helpful manner is a status affront. Young males are of course likely to be the least helpful in this kind of passing.

      Generally this minor status tweak is not aggravating enough to warrant much rumination, unless done by someone considered to be ‘peer-level’ since this is the peak of the status affrontery curve. If a guy in a tweed suit with elbow patches fails to get out of Robin’s way, I can only imagine what theories might be spun out of that. But the question hanging in the air is: why is Robin so threatened by Asians?

    • Divide

      People bike for exercise. Then they do everything they possibly can to avoid slowing down and speeding up again, which takes more work.

      Well, many people (myself included) bike to commute and are not particularly interested in it taking more effort than strictly necessary.

      Although I’ll grant you that Robin is possibly not commuting right there, with it being circle path and all.

  • When I ride my bike in Australia, I expect people to get to their left both when I’m riding toward them and around them from behind (as in a car). Most people who get it wrong are foreigners, and most of those Asians, but the latter is potentially explained by there just being a lot of Asians here.

    I usually put their failure to move correctly down to them coming from countries where you are meant to move to the right. This also explains them not moving together, because half of them have remembered the new direction they are meant to move in and half haven’t. Anyone who gets it wrong in Australia should get it right in America, but Asia has a good proportion of both left and right side driving (and so I assume road norms for other travel) and Asians should make up a lot of the people who are just confused by moving to a different system.

    • Drewfus

      I notice this constantly too, Katja.

      When walking on public paths, i try to keep to the left. That is, to the same side as the driving rule (in Australia). Many Asians have a good ‘excuse’ for not following the rule – they’re following the rule for their own country.

      But European decended Australians only half get it, too. In this case, half of them can be bothered thinking about pedestrian mobility and stick the left, the others walk wherever. Its almost a case of free-loading, since these people are ‘consuming’ the spaces made available by others more cooperative use of public space.

      I’d be very interested to see what affect lane makers would have on pedestrian efficiency. Not strict ones, of course, but ones that acted as ‘hints’.

    • Unnamed

      This sounds plausible. Robin, are Asians also more likely to move to the left rather than the right? If so, that would support the hypothesis that Asians are just more likely to be from left-hand-driving countries and thus more likely to be confused and not follow the standard move-to-the-right rule.

  • Aron

    I wouldn’t tend to trust the accuracy of your belief that Asians do this at a higher rate, unless you actually wrote down each instance. I find it more probable that you get that idea in your head after a single or two cases strung together and then ignore future contradictions. Your colleague might be some evidence, but perhaps he just wanted to get out of the conversation with you in a polite manner.

    Would we expect a priori that there is a huge difference in the statistics, or a marginal one? Asians may look all like Asians but have considerably different histories.

    [rrring rrring]

    Maybe you are heading straight for the middle one now, or ringing the bell later than average to encourage them to split in half to support your theory? Do you ring your bell in an objective and hypothesis-neutral manner, Robin? Is there anyway to blindfold you AND allow you to count the Asians along the way?

  • A lot of academics have talked about norms but I can’t recall any giving as thorough an explanation of what norms we should expect to emerge and why as Robert Ellickson in “Order Without Law”. I’ve been discussing that book here. As for why some people wouldn’t have handed path norms, a lack of history with automobiles?

    Off-topic: Henry Farrell on Toy Story seems quite relevant to Robin’s thoughts on ems.

  • JC

    Has it occurred to you that there might be a separate norm they’re trying to follow? It could depend on who is considered to have the right of way in this case. If it is that pedestrians have right of way, they could move together as a group and the cyclist would be expected to go around them. But if the cyclist had the right of way, pedestrians would be expected to get out of the way so the bike can go past unimpeded. The latter norm is usually more prevalent in developing countries. For Asians who have recently moved to the US, the latter norm may still be uppermost in their mind and they may be trying to make it easier for you to drive straight through.

  • Steven Schreiber

    I live with people from Taiwan who rent houses primarily to people from mainland China and the broad agreement is that this is class, not race or culture: people from poor and rural areas don’t follow these norms while wealthier, more urban people do.

    At a factory owned by one member of this family, there is the direct experience of what a Chinese friend described from the early days of China’s industrialization: large numbers of peasants who simply did not understand the factory system, how wages and productivity worked, etc.

    The reason you see this in Asians probably has more to do with the socioeconomic status of immigrants than anything else.