Many social processes can contribute to misbehavior. Of these, norms are probably the most important. Groups develop both descriptive norms (i.e., expectations of what is typical or normal) and injunctive norms (i.e., beliefs about what people should or should not do), and these norms have a powerful impact on behavior. In particular, misbehavior is highly likely if the norms of important groups (reference groups) run counter to the norms of society in general. The fact that most people belong to many groups, whose norms might differ, is critical for understanding the social origins of many classes of misbehavior. Individuals who engage in patterns of behavior that are harmful or destructive and that violate the norms of society in general often believe that are in fact doing the right thing because their behaviors conform to the norms of the particular groups they belong to or identify with.

The norms of the various groups you belong to are important precisely because group membership is an important component of a person’s identity. People have a strong motivation to maintain a positive self-image, and one part of that effort is to follow the norms of the reference groups you most closely identify with; if the group says that a particular behavior is good, carrying out that behavior can contribute to a positive self-image.

The preferences, beliefs, and norms of important reference groups are a critical factor in determining whether individuals will engage in particular classes of misbehavior, but they are not the only factor. Other people can influence your behavior even if they are not part of a group you belong to or aspire to belong to. For example, you are subject to a barrage of social influence attempts (e.g., television commercials, political campaigns, community outreach) daily, and this can include negative or destructive influence. Both information and emotional states can spread from person to person, and this contagion can transform individuals who would otherwise be peaceful and law-abiding into a howling, violent mob. The presence of others might diminish your sense of responsibility to respond to persons in need or may lead to ambiguity about who should undertake what responses. Finally, the presence of others will sometimes lead to conflicts, and conflict often leads to a cycle of escalation in which conflict spreads to others and intensifies. Understanding the processes that lead to conflict escalation and de-escalation can be critical to preventing conflicts from getting out of hand.