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Social Compliance principle


Principles > Social Compliance principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


We must comply with social rules (or face dire social consequences).

How it works

We have deep needs for belonging, esteem and status which help create our sense of identity. These are satisfied when others accept and admire us. We hence have to take note of their approval and act in ways that will lead to them behaving in ways that lead to satisfaction of our deep needs.

Social rules

As everyone is impacted by the same forces, we come to agreement about common social norms which we adopt as values. Common rules help us predict how others will behave and so we can feel safe when we are surrounded by others who obey these rules.

Reward and punishment

One of the key reasons social compliance works is because of the consequences. Those who comply with social rules are rewarded with greater admiration and status. Those who break rules are punished according to further rules of appropriateness. Hence a minor transgression may be punished with a stern glance while a major failure can result in public criticism and even ostracization.

One of the common (but often hidden) rules is that everyone should engage in praise of the worthy and, especially, punishment of the guilty. It is not good enough to sit back, for to do so is to tacitly approve of transgressions. To not punish is to become guilty and so be deserving of punishment. This lock-in amplifies the power of social rules.


Social compliance is a deep and universal rule which underlies other principles such as exchange, harmony and social proof.

Rules can exist at varying levels of commonality. Not hurting vulnerable people, for example, is a common rule that is found in many places, although rules of who should respect who and how respect should be shown may vary greatly.

Some rules can be very localized, for example only applying within small groups or regions. Such customs may seem strange but they help define the identity of the group and also help identify outsiders who do not comply with these rules.

Rules may also be made explicit and mandatory within any given society, by formalizing them as as laws, policies and other structures which are agreed as important for compliance. Laws are typically created when there is insufficient natural compliance and where the subject is considered serious enough to require policing.

So what?

When you are persuading, always consider how the other person will frame what you are asking of them in terms of how people will see them (especially those whose views are important to them).

Align your requests with social norms and other rules. Show how what you are asking is legal and also complies with less formal rules.

 Frame your requests in terms of the social benefits to them, gaining them status and helping them belong. You can also show the social threats of not complying.

See also

Maslow's Hierarchy, Values, Groups, Relationships

Consistency principle, Harmony principle, Obligation principle, Similarity principle, Social Proof principle



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