“Breaking Social Norms” – A Spotlight on Middleton’s AP Psychology Course


Laina Gustafson

Students of Middleton’s AP Psychology class were invited to step out of their comfort zones to “break social norms” in public, as a real-life exploration of their Social Psychology unit.

Genevieve Eck and Laina Gustafson

With dreaded Advanced Placement (AP) exams quickly approaching, most AP classes are filled with note cards, practice tests and stress. But for students of Middleton High School’s AP Psychology course, class content took on a unique and empowering twist when students were invited to videotape themselves in public breaking a “social norm.”

As these students studied, a social “norm” is an expectation for behavior, often followed to “fit in” and help our society function. A norm can be anything from sitting properly at a desk to wearing the latest clothing trends, but they are followed almost automatically by everyone around us. In high school especially, the pressure to align with social norms can become suffocating. 

Laina Gustafson (left) sipping a lidless strawberry lemonade with peach popping pearls and Genevieve Eck (right) with mango punch and strawberry popping pearls. (Laina Gustafson and Genevieve Eck)

“The AP Psych teachers feel so lucky to be able to teach content and put names to phenomena that students see in their worlds every day,” AP Psychology teacher Jennifer Zart said. “We’re so lucky to have students that are willing to apply their learning!”

For us, breaking social norms quickly became an exciting, albeit embarrassing, venture. We started simple: grabbing a drink at Yummee, a popular boba and bakery spot down the street from Middleton High School. Boba is typically served in a to-go cup with a plastic covering, and it is sipped by punching a thick straw through the lid. For the first of several social norms broken that day, we drank our boba by peeling back the plastic and foregoing the straw.

“I felt really stupid at first,” Laina Gustafson (left) said. “But at the same time, it was kind of fun. I didn’t expect to feel so strange.” 

Two girls sitting next to us watched as we struggled to peel the tough plastic off of our cups.

“You know, you can pop the straw through the top,” one of the girls spoke up. Bashfully, we explained the project to them and assured them it was not, in fact, our first time drinking boba. They laughed, seemingly confused by our response. We were pleasantly surprised by their intent to help out a stranger, having expected people to just stare or make fun of our strange behavior. Before they left, the pair came up to us and wished us an “A” on our school project.

After our encounter at Yummee, we set off to our next destination. We made our way into the Hilldale Target — a popular shopping center for Middleton and Madison families. As we entered the Target lobby, staring up the escalator, we had an idea.

Genevieve Eck (top) and Laina Gustafson (bottom) sitting on the way up the Target escalator. (Laina Gustafson)

To the surprise and confusion of onlookers, we took a seat on one of the grimy steps and the escalator shuttled us up. 

“It felt like everyone’s eyes were on me,” Gustafson said. “I couldn’t stop laughing in embarrassment. It’s funny how something as simple as standing or sitting can make you feel so out of place.”

As soon we entered the department store we began brainstorming some unique ways to get around. We skipped, cartwheeled and — our personal favorite — rode around in shopping carts.

“Riding in the cart was humiliating,” Genevieve Eck said. Getting in the cart cost us a couple of glares and quizzical looks.

 “I thought I wouldn’t mind what others thought of me in the moment, but as soon as people began to notice me, I felt super embarrassed,” Eck continued.

Genevieve Eck riding around Target in a shopping cart. (Laina Gustafson)

After we mustered up the courage to cart around the aisles, there was no stopping us. We made it through the laundry, gardening and grocery sections, but the sight of people we knew scared us into hiding out in the toy aisle. Turns out that embarrassing ourselves in front of people that recognized us was another challenge entirely, one we were not quite ready to conquer.

For the grand finale, we drove over to McDonalds and ordered some food. Only, we did not take our cars all the way to the drive thru window: we walked. After finalizing our orders, we parked our vehicles and walked up to the pay window.

“It was such an awkward experience,” Eck said. “The woman working the window was definitely confused. I didn’t know what to say, so I just blurted ‘sorry, I parked kind of far away.’”

The worker’s confusion increased twofold when Gustafson walked up to the takeout window with the same bashful expression. But as a good-natured professional, she simply laughed and moved on to the next customer.

AP Psychology teachers were careful to encourage students to break only harmless social norms, such as walking through a drive through line. (Genevieve Eck and Laina Gustafson)

From fast food and clothing stores to public high schools, maintaining social norms is a constant expectation. Breaking them, although entertaining, usually comes with embarrassment, weird stares and feeling “out of place.” In reality, most of this discomfort is all in our heads. 

“Students are able to realize the power that a social situation has on their own and others behavior and hopefully take that into consideration when they are trying to explain why people do the things they do,” Zart said. By applying what they learned in the classroom to their own lives, Middleton’s AP Psychology students witnessed the power of social norms firsthand. 

“I’m sure anyone who broke a social norm won’t get that term wrong on the exam!” Zart said. For us, this lighthearted project was certainly unforgettable!