What Are Prescriptive and Proscriptive Norms?

Prescriptive norms are silently understood precepts of expected behavior, closely related to manners and good conduct, while proscriptive norms are taboo or otherwise unacceptable actions and behaviors that likewise remain undiscussed. Both sets of norms differ between cultures.

Both prescriptive and proscriptive norms are defined by the expectation that individuals will intuit their existence while growing to adulthood and entering society. They are seldom discussed openly or in conversation, existing instead as a kind of road map for general behavior.

Examples of prescriptive norms include:

  • Writing thank-you cards after receiving a gift
  • Accepting a proffered handshake
  • Returning a bow in traditional Japanese culture

Prescriptive norms constitute the model of expected good behavior. They outline social scripts to be followed in specific situations. While not necessarily perfunctory, they are by definition scripted interactions.

Examples of proscriptive norms include:

  • Kissing strangers as a form of greeting
  • Screaming or raising voices indoors
  • Wearing bright colors at funeral services

Proscriptive norms are the inverse of prescriptive norms. They exist to guide individuals away from behaviors considered disruptive or inappropriate by mainstream culture, and they help to preserve the forms and functions of everyday interactions and of rituals in both the religious and societal sense by giving a moral structure to all interactions between individuals. Some proscriptive norms are enshrined in law, like cultural taboos against violent crime.