Social Roles in Psychology (Examples)

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

Let’s talk about code-switching. You might have done this without knowing it. You might do it after you leave this room or pick up the phone.

Code-switching is the process of switching from one linguistic code to another. Sometimes, this is speaking in a different language entirely. You might start to speak in Spanish so that English-speakers around you cannot hear that you’re making fun of them. Or, you might adjust your speech when you’re in the boardroom to sound more “intelligent.” You may slip out of that speak when you’re in a more casual situation.

Why do we do this? Why do we change our entire pattern of speech just because we’re in a different room or around different people? Often, we code-switch or perform other different behaviors because we fill the need to fill certain social roles.

What Are Social Roles?

Humans are social creatures. We form social groups that set out to achieve certain goals. Each member of that social group has a Social Role. 

Social roles are specific categories that people place themselves, and they come with unwritten responsibilities, but they also come with a code of behavior. By abiding to this code of behavior, each member can fulfill their role and reap the benefits of doing so. Acting outside of these roles often has consequences.

Why Do We Have These Unwritten Roles?

Why is conformity so beneficial in society? Evolutionary Psychology may have the answer. Experts suggest that back when humans were part of tribes, they had to behave carefully to avoid dire consequences. I’m talking about serious consequences - getting eaten by predators, starving, etc.

If every member of the group acted predictably, the other members could trust that their food would be hunted, shelter would be provided, and protection would be given to more vulnerable members of the society.

But if someone was acting erratically, or outside of their role, the group may become uneasy. If the “gatherer” became the “hunter,” the group may not feel confident about the amount of berries or game that is coming back at the end of the day. The group may even decide to abandon the person who is behaving outside of their social role so their group (and its behavior) remains more predictable.

Although social groups aren’t always fetching food for each other, the unease still pops up if someone is acting outside of their role.

How Are Social Roles Determined?

Who determines who is the hunter, and who is the gatherer? Who determines who handles the money in the family? Who determines who is the “breadwinner” and who is the “homemaker?” Who determines that there has to be one breadwinner and one homemaker within a home setting?

Social Role Theory

The answer may be found in those two terms: “breadwinner” and “homemaker.” These are two different types of labor. The labor of hunting, gathering, and nurturing the children also suggest how these roles have been developed over time.

Psychologists Eagly and Wood proposed that the division of labor determined not only the “roles” of men and women in a society, but also stereotypes pertaining to that each sex. This is known as Social Role Theory.

Within these stereotypes are personality traits and behaviors. Social role theory suggests that the stereotypes of a demure, nurturing woman and a powerful, tough man come from these roles originally given to them in society. As you’ll learn shortly, these roles and stereotypes lead to laws and punishments over simple behaviors pertaining to each gender’s “role.”

Social Roles Influence Behavior

Social roles influence behavior down to the smallest choices, like wearing pants or a skirt. Anyone with at least one leg can physically wear pants or a skirt. But society has produced many written and unwritten rules about who can wear pants or a skirt.

Masquerading laws, first passed in the 1800s, set vague rules for the type of dress that people could wear in public. Although these laws were not passed to target certain genders, societal shifts caused law enforcement to focus their attention on people who were “cross-dressing.” Up until the 1960s, men wearing dresses could be accosted by police or thrown in jail for their dress. But this rule was not used on male religious leaders who, one could argue, technically wore skirts or dresses in their profession. It was not enforced in Scotland, where kilts are considered traditional clothes.

The role a man has in society, along with his location, determines whether or not he was obligated to have a seam between his legs.

Depending on the social circle you find yourself in, you might see that these rules are starting to change. Some societies revere drag queens and men who feel confident enough to walk down a runway in a skirt. Others still leave skirt-wearing for women and male religious leaders.

We Are Not Confined to One Role

A man who might feel comfortable wearing a skirt at a party of close friends may not feel so comfortable performing this behavior at a rodeo. As we move in and out of different circles, we may adjust our behavior to fit wherever we are in the present.

And our gender is far from the only factor that may “determine” our role in society. Race, religion, age, and profession may all determine what role we play and what behaviors are acceptable. These roles may also determine what “groups” are considered outsiders and which are considered more deserving of resources. There is a wage gap between men and women. But this wage gap is wider or smaller depending on the person’s race. Both race and gender play a part in how an employer views that person’s worth in society and what jobs they can get.

Of course, our own behavior is also influenced by our role. A woman who has a job outside of the home may make different financial decisions than a woman who stays at home all day. The woman who is investing money may be willing to voice her opinion to a room full of other women, but holds her tongue in a room full of men. The men in the room may consider the opinion of the other men, but not even listen to the woman sharing her thoughts. The men in the room may also listen to other men based on their physical appearance, linking smart dress to smart decisions.

We are constantly relying on our social roles and the perceived social roles of others to make judgements and drive behavior. And the more we become aware of how social roles and stereotypes may influence us, the more we can step back and make better, more fair decisions. Are you judging someone because they are doing something wrong, or just because they don’t “fit” the social role that society gives to them?

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, June). Social Roles in Psychology (Examples). Retrieved from

About The Author

Photo of author