How and Why Consumers Normalize
Consumers often rationalize and normalize risk for the many products and activities
they consume. The variety of such behavior is wide:
• The consumption of illegal substances, such as narcotics;
• Known health hazards such as tobacco or high-risk professions,
• Unknown and untested possible hazards such as genetically modified food or mad-cow
• High-risk sexual practices;
• Risky investments such as timeshares;
• Buying stocks in companies with no revenue during the dot.com era or the housing
bubble despite warnings that rising prices and low rates could not go on forever.
What is common in all these activities is that a person is exposed to a group mindset in
which the norms and values of the group are altered to accept high-risk consumption as
normal and acceptable.
When a person first becomes acquainted with a new group or culture, that individual
learns new symbols and meanings. For example, there have been numerous studies,
such as this one in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing the correlation
between individuals gaining weight by socializing or becoming acculturated into groups
of overweight people. Instead of the individual viewing overweight as a symbol of being
unhealthy, it becomes a symbol of being normal. Likewise, the behaviors (possibly)
associated with it, such as an unbalanced diet or lack of physical exercise, become
normalized and seen as acceptable. The same could be true for body-builders who are
acculturated into a competitive group and join in the use of steroids to gain an edge.
Average bodies may no longer be perceived as normal, and large muscular bodies
become the new normal. By adopting group norms, there is the perceived award of
acceptance and being a part of new group.
Technology has assisted individuals in normalizing risk in two important ways. One, it
makes it easier for individuals to engage in risk, such as buying stocks with a few clicks
of a button. Secondly, it makes it easier for individuals to seek out groups that engage in
a dangerous behavior such as motor cycle racing or spelunking. As a person becomes
acculturated to the risk and has a command of the language and symbols associated
with that behavior, they tend to feel that have a higher degree of control over the
outcomes of the activities. With repeated exposure to the risky activity, one believes that
they “know what they are doing” and are immune to the risk. When undesirable
outcomes happen to others, such as a drug user who overdoses or a mountain climber
who falls off a cliff, that outcome is viewed as “that person did not follow the rules” and
“it will not happen to me because I do follow the rules.”
There are instances when one’s perception of adverse outcomes may be seen as normal
or outside an individual’s control. For example, crab fishing is one of the most
dangerous jobs on the planets and fatalities are common. A crab fisherman may simply
perceive that this is normal or that he has no choice over his career.
Additionally, there may be strong social pressures to adapt to new values and norms.
Many individuals that invested in homes during the housing bubble, despite warnings
the market could not go up forever, were afraid of missing the boat and being left behind
by those who did invest. The need to belong can impose great influence on an
individual’s behavior, whether that person is conscious of it or not. The market can exert
great social pressure on people with messages of “Act now or lose out.” The desire for
personal attainment, success, social position and actualization may also drive the person
to take on risky consumptions and ignore possible consequences.
An individual may also feel they are immune to consequences because of the belief that
the repercussions will be absorbed by the group. Since they are not the only ones
engaging in an activity, they may believe they are shielded from harm, or that the harm
will be dissipated. A mountain climber may erroneously rationalize that if he or she is
climbing with ten people the chances of a falling are now only one out of ten. When
groups engage in illegal or bad behavior, they feel less likely to be singled out and if
everyone is doing “it,” it somehow becomes less bad. We’ve seen groups of people
herding across a street in order to stop traffic. However, in reality if a car doesn’t stop,
being in a group may not provide sufficient protection.
When groups engage in risky behavior there is almost always an individual that seems
immune to the consequences. That individual may serve as a symbol of “it won’t happen
to me”--until it does happen to either person. How many stories have we heard from
famous people who risked everything saying that they always knew they would be
famous, but we never hear from the ones that thought they always knew they would
become famous, but did not.
To a great extent this can be a good thing. Where would we be if Benjamin Franklin
wasn’t foolish enough to go fly a kite during a lighting storm? Was it the need for social
status or belonging? Did his friends dare him or did he not have the language or values
to perceive the risk? Or was the drive to succeed and hoped-for reward much greater
than the consequence?
We all can be influenced into normalizing risk, whether we are conscious of it at the
time or not. The choice we do have is to reflect and decide if it is really in our best
interest or not.