What happens when you start vacuuming in the middle of a fraternity party?

A VCU psychology class is experimenting with breaking social norms.

Cookies shaped like fish are all light in color and facing right, except for one fish that is dar...
A VCU class taught by David Chester, Ph.D., an assistant professor and director of social psychology, is experimenting with breaking social norms. (Getty Images)

As a class assignment for a Virginia Commonwealth University social psychology course, each student was asked to go out into public and break a social norm. So Tyler Epperson, a senior psychology major, strapped on a fake pregnancy belly, went to a rowdy bar and had a few drinks.

“Putting myself around intoxicated people and cigarette smoke caused me to clearly stick out like a sore thumb,” Epperson said. “At first I was excited about this. However, once I stepped into this environment the room was filled with shock and disgust.”

A woman in a gray dress drinks a beverage while standing next to a man wearing dark clothes.
To break a social norm for a class assignment, Tyler Epperson wore a fake pregnancy belly and drank alcohol in public. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Epperson)

Epperson could tell people were upset, signaling their disapproval through dirty looks. A few people walked over to express their opinions, but only in groups.

“It led me to realize that people tend to feel more comfortable giving their opinions via body language, or not alone and within groups,” she said.

Epperson’s fake pregnancy at a bar was just one of the social norms broken this semester as part of the exercise in the social psychology course taught by David Chester, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of social psychology in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“The goal is for the students to take what they learn in the classroom and take it out into the real world,” Chester said. “They identify a social norm and then they go violate it in a way that doesn’t put themselves or others in harm’s way.”

Chester has taught the class several times, and each time he is amazed by the creativity of the students.

“If you give VCU students an assignment like this, they’ll just go to town,” he said. “They really take it to another level.”

In a previous semester, one student went to Victoria’s Secret, tried on underwear in the changing room and then walked around the store asking for opinions on it.

Another student went home for a big family meal. When a messy pasta dish was served, the student ate with her hands.

“She decided the norm she was going to violate was that you use silverware to eat food,” Chester said. “So she’s just eating with her hands the entire meal, acting like nothing was different.”

This semester, one student went to a big fraternity party and started vacuuming in the middle of the crowd.

“Eventually, other people started to catch on and then they took it over from her and they just kept vacuuming,” Chester said. “By the time she was leaving the party, there were people still vacuuming the house.”

After they broke a social norm, the students were asked to write a paper reflecting on how their experiences illustrated the power of cultural and societal pressures.

Hadley Rahrig, a doctoral student in the social psychology program and the course’s graduate teaching assistant, said the students clearly committed to the assignment and their reflections were thoughtful and entertaining.

“A few examples include: wearing clothes backwards, meditating on the floor of a club, walking around a grocery store with an open umbrella, and screaming in the middle of conversations,” Rahrig said.

Some students used the opportunity to explore social norms that had more serious, relevant consequences, she said.

“For example, one student wrote about shaving her head and what that meant within her own culture,” she said. “One student wrote a poignant piece about dressing in drag, noting how one's gender expression can be internalized by observers.”

Most of the students realized how challenging it is to break a social norm, even when just deviating a bit from standard behavior, Rahrig said.

“Students reported receiving dirty looks, hushed criticisms and direct confrontations,” she said. “Some students stated that they were mortified by the experience and couldn't wait for it to end, while others seemed more comfortable with nonconformity.”

The students also learned how standards for social norms vary considerably between environments.

Many noted how one odd behavior was generally accepted on VCU's campus, but the same behavior was scorned at Short Pump.

“Many noted how one odd behavior was generally accepted on VCU's campus, but the same behavior was scorned at Short Pump,” Rahrig said. “Some students actually applied a quasi-scientific method to their project by systematically testing the behavior in different environments and with different groups of people.”

For Rahrig, reading the students’ papers felt like watching performance art or an episode of “The Office.”

“Some papers did come across as poignant social commentary, but some were so cringeworthy that they made me laugh out loud,” she said. “Overall, I was extremely impressed. I think more psychology classes should challenge students to test psychology theories in the real world. These exercises show how creative and thoughtful our students can be if given the opportunity.”

The idea, Chester said, is to show students how much of their and others’ behavior is driven by norms.

“It lets them realize that all the time you are surrounded by social norms,” he said. “They dictate your behavior and that when you break them you can get very interesting responses from other people. It’s a really intense but interesting experience for these students.”

Epperson said wearing the fake pregnancy belly at the bar was “definitely an experience to remember.”

“I got plenty of ‘how can you live with yourself?’ and ‘you’re disgusting’ calls from a distance,” she said. “Overall it was an educational experience and I am glad to of done it.”