Social and Cultural Norms Affect Behaviour

Everything from clothing to food choices are influenced by those around us

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Benjamin Giguère

How did you decide what clothes to put on this morning? Your decision probably had a lot to do with the social and cultural groups you belong to. If you’re a professor, like U of G psychology professor Benjamin Giguère, you’ll dress to fit in with the other male professors: in the summer, a short-sleeved buttoned shirt in a dark colour, knee-length shorts and comfortable sandals. “A bright yellow tank top and short shorts would cover the same body parts,” notes Giguère, “but I would feel odd, and other people would definitely notice because I would be deviating from the norms of my group.”

His point is that much of what we do on a daily basis – from small things, such as where we go to buy coffee, to bigger issues such as deciding what career to pursue – is influenced by the norms of the social and cultural groups we belong to. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not.

To explore both sides, Giguère’s research looks at how groups affect rates of binge drinking and physical activity; how managing multiple sets of norms can enhance or hinder the psychological well-being of children of immigrants; and how groups motivate people to engage in social protests, particularly student protests, along with the consequences of their participation on their well-being.

A native of Quebec City, Giguère says his family story is that he learned English by watching Sesame Street (although his father spoke some English, French was always spoken in their home). “One day I answered the phone and the caller spoke in English. I answered him in English. That’s when my parents figured out I could speak the language,” says Giguère.

It proved to be a valuable skill, because his studies at McGill University and York University have all been in English. In fact, while at York he worked with a faculty member who was a francophone from Sudbury, and recalls that while they spoke French together in social situations, neither of them had the French vocabulary to discuss their research work. “We’d both learned it all in English.”

With that Quebec background, Giguère was naturally interested in the student protest in his home province, beginning with the one in 2005. What caught his attention is that from the start students were not saying they were protesting – they were “on strike”– even though students are not included in any laws pertaining to worker strikes. “We did a survey to find out what motivated people at different levels,” he says.

The main motivator, he found, is “a perceived sense of shared grievance. The students feel they are being short-changed,” Giguère says. Those grievances bring people together, and during the protests that sense of connection is strengthened. They see each other daily and discuss their concerns, and that motivates them to continue. “If you get up one day and it is raining, you go anyway because you don’t want to leave your friends to protest in the rain alone,” he adds.

The process was repeated with this year’s student protests, which have broadened to a range of issues, including health care and the environment. “I’m interested in studying this further to understand how and why this shift has occurred,” says Giguère.

His studies of immigrant families try to understand how people manage belonging to two social groups with different sets of norms. For example, having pre-marital sex is usually considered more appropriate in Canada than in India. Situations in which children of immigrants have to face these incompatible norms can be stressful and upsetting. Giguère and his collaborators are currently trying to understand how these conflicts are prevented and managed.

Giguère is also looking at ways social groups and their norms shape health-related behaviours, such as binge drinking and physical activity. Various campaigns have tried to affect these behaviours, but the success of these interventions has been mixed: some have effectively decreased problematic behaviours, others have failed, and some have boomeranged and actually increased the problematic behaviour.

Giguère is building a new approach to these interventions by using a model he developed based on social emotions, such as guilt and respect, and by generating intervention strategies catered to specific group characteristics, such as the socio-economic status of a group. “We may do better through refining the campaigns and making them fit with the groups that are important in people’s lives.”

Giguère will study the health-related issues in several ways using both community surveys and laboratory situations. “No one research tool is perfect, so working from different perspectives is probably the best strategy we have to understand these complex behaviours,” he says.

In his personal life, Giguère is looking forward to having his wife move here next spring. They’ve often lived apart over the past few years, as he completed his studies and taught at Bishop’s University, and she worked on a medical degree at the University of Montreal followed by a residency in Sherbrooke, Quebec. “It’s been a travelling love story,” he says.

During his PhD work he gave up another love: designing courses for horse shows. Giguère’s father is a veterinarian equine practitioner and his grandfather and uncles are well-known for their involvement in standardbred racing. Giguère rode in his youth before he became involved in course design, but hasn’t ridden in many years, and says his riding days are over, but his passion for horses continues.