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Four Social Roles


Explanations > Values > Four Social Roles

Conformance | Role level | Four roles | See also


Social norms are the unwritten rules by which societies and groups behave in a consistent and predictable manner. Obedience to the rules is important and there are rules about how you should act, both in encouraging use of the rules and in punishing transgression of the rules.

Here are two dimensions and four sub-dimensions of each dimension that indicate four distinct social roles for ensuring rules are followed.


The conformance of any act or role is an assessment of how well (or not) any individual rule is obeyed.


Positive conformance is obedience of rules. It indicates that a person is doing as they should and acting within approved roles.

In theory there should be reward for all positive acts of conformance. In practice, the reward is often non-punishment and simply continuation of an 'approved person' status.


When a person does not conform to social norms then they are acting negatively and some form of punishment is required.

Role level

There are two levels in which people may act, depending on their involvement or not in conformance with the rule.

Primary role

In the primary role, the person is in the 'first person' position, enacting the rule or breaking the rule.

The basic rule for primary roles is that positive conformance is rewarded and (negative) non-conformance is punished.

Secondary role

The secondary role is taken by all people who are not involved in the primary role. An important aspect of culture is that you are not allowed to sit on the fence. You have to respond to situations and non-response is considered itself as a transgression.

The basic rule for secondary roles is hence that everyone should be involved in encouraging positive conformance and punishing negative conformance. 

Four roles

From the above dimensions and sub-dimensions.


Four Social Roles

Positive Negative

Role Level










The hero is a person who conforms to social rules. The first benefit of this is that they are not punished as villains.

Also, if their action is particularly selfless, supporting the group at a risk or cost to themselves, then they are seen as deserving reward. Heroes are hence held up as role models for others to emulate.

This can become an extrinsic motivation as people deliberately act heroically in order to gain accolade and recognition. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the group as it still leads to rules being followed.

A risk for heroics occurs where the identity-based drive for esteem and status leads to manipulated and foolish heroics where people create false situations and take risks that endanger others. If a person is found to be doing this, they may be reframed as a villain.


Villains are those who transgress social rules. There has to be consequences for such acts as without action it may encourage others to also break rules.

The response to villainy may be proportionate to the act and also to the individual's history. Initially, the response may be corrective, especially for relatively minor transgressions. The person is reminded of the rules and educated as to how to behave correctly. Repeat offenders and those who break more serious rules are treated increasingly harshly, with open criticism and, eventually, expulsion from the group.


An important rule about secondary roles is that everyone who is not in the primary role must be active in a secondary role. Hence if someone is villainous, it is imperative that all others engage in the response, whether it is simple criticism or more active punishment.

If a person does not engage in punishment then they themselves become villains. Hence, for example, in a society where extra-marital sex is punished by stoning, other people are obliged to engage in the act of stoning, even if they personally find this abhorrent. Failure to do so may result in themselves also being stoned.


When a hero performs a selfless act then they seen as deserving reward, with a right to accolades from others in the group. This is the role of the supporter, to encourage, support and celebrate heroes.

As with the punisher, active support is an obligation for all who are not involved in the heroic acts. For example in wars, it is a social imperative that non-combatants should verbally and actively support people in military forces. To sit on the fence is to show disapproval and invite criticism.

So what?

If you want to be accepted in a social group, then you should not only obey the rules, but you need also to engage in criticizing villains and supporting heroes, even if you do not approve of the methods by which such actions are undertaken.

See also

Extrinsic Motivation



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