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CHANGING SOCIAL NORMS / Vol. 85, No. 1 (Spring 2018)

Arien Mack, Editor

There is an important question not much addressed in the media discussions about Trump’s norm breaking that is addressed in this issue of Social Research. That question is whether the norm busting being done by our president will lead to norm changes. Are his actions likely to establish new norms for the presidency?

We examine how successful norm change is spearheaded by “trendsetters.” We highlight the characteristics of trendsetters, model a social norm game, and explore the relationship between norm change, trendsetters, and their social network, using simulations based on a real network. Important factors for norm abandonment include the reference group for norms, the distribution of norm sensitivity in the population, and the location of low norm sensitivity individuals. We find that, contrary to what is sometimes believed, a trendsetter can enable norm change whether they are in the center or in the periphery of the network.

How it is that multiple individuals within a system can generate collectively beneficial outcomes? This question has generated two important controversies. The first is whether self-organization or central control is required to produce social order. The second is whether social order can be the outcome of self-interested rational action, rather than emotions, habit, and empathy. This article discusses the principal explanations of social order currently on offer in evolutionary biology and the social sciences. In so doing, it argues that neither invisible-hand explanations nor nonrational motivations have yet to succeed in accounting for large-scale cooperation in human society.

People like to be like others whom they admire. This is the "emulation preference." We can take advantage of it to change a person's normatively guided behavior in various ways. One is by correcting that person's misperceptions of norms upon which others are acting. Another is by correcting that person's misperception of the norms others think people should act upon. A third is by persuading that person that there is nothing admirable in certain ways of behaving, in hopes that he or she will cease wanting to emulate those bad behaviors.

Social change often comes from unleashing hidden preferences and constructing novel preferences. Under the pressure of social norms, people sometimes falsify their preferences. Once norms are weakened or revised, it becomes possible to discover preexisting preferences. Because those preferences were concealed, large-scale movements are both possible and difficult to predict. Revision of norms can also construct rather than uncover preferences. Once norms are altered, people come to hold preferences they did not hold before. These points bear on the rise and fall of discrimination and help illuminate the dynamics of social cascades and the effects of social norms on diverse practices and developments.

We argue that individuals use descriptive norms as a source of information about social norms to which others adhere. These normative expectations encourage decisions consistent with typical behaviors. We test our hypotheses using two experiments, the first examining the effects of descriptive norms of segregation on normative expectations about approval of transracial adoption. The second examines effects of widespread use of potentially privacy-violating technology on normative expectations about others’ approval of privacy violations. We find evidence that descriptive norms affect normative expectations and decisions consistent with the descriptive norms. Our results suggest that descriptive norms may both impede and facilitate norm change.

Social norms are a popular target for interventions designed to change behavior. These interventions seek to change social norms so that conformity will shift behavior in a desirable direction. An analysis of the psychological processes through which norms are constructed offers insight into when and how these interventions work. Norms are the product of inference processes that produce generalizations about group behaviors and sentiments from everyday social observation, and selection processes that determine which observations are included and weighted most heavily in the norm. Successful interventions target one or more of these processes to produce changes in norms and behaviors.

The key maxims of organized social-norms change are: enough people have to believe that enough other people are changing, and seeing is believing. Social norm is understood as a rule constituted by interdependent beliefs and actions within a reference group. Organized efforts to change social norms are reviewed and compared: the end of foot binding in China; the abandonment of female genital cutting in Africa; community total sanitation; overcoming malnutrition in postwar Vietnam; reducing violence against women and girls amongst displaced populations; changing harmful newborn care practices in India; and establishing peace and rule of law in Bogotá, Colombia.

James Coleman‛s theory assumes that social relationships between potential beneficiaries of a norm are important for its emergence. These relationships increase the likelihood of sanctioning those who do not contribute to the provision of public goods (such as reducing pollution). It is argued that a low perceived influence of providing the public good reduces the impact of social relationships. They are further irrelevant if there is an exit option (norm violation can happen outside the relationship). Coleman assumes that norms are created by human design. I specify a mechanism of norm emergence as a by-product of private interests, illustrated with the non-smoking norm.

Have debates about “hate speech” reduced the American public’s support for free speech rights of controversial groups? An examination of 40 years of General Social Survey data reveals massive increases in tolerance for various types of unpopular speech. In contrast, tolerance for racist speech has been stationary in the general public since the mid-1970s and declined sharply among college graduates, liberals, and younger cohorts. This indicates that efforts to frame hate speech as antithetical to egalitarian values have succeeded in making tolerance for racist speech a contested norm, transforming longstanding structural relationships between education, liberalism, and tolerance in this domain of expression.

I suggest three social norms of good citizenship, as expressed in voting and other activites: cosmopolitanism, anti-moralism, and actively open-minded thinking (AOT). Cosmopolitanism is a continuum, from pure self-interest voting to concern for present and future humanity. In the middle is parochialism, which is voting for an in-group, even when out-group harm exceeds in-group benefit. Moralism is willingness to impose on others beliefs that cannot be defended in terms of their goals. AOT is active search for reasons a pet idea might be wrong. It is required for individual thinking, for group discussion, and for evaluation of authorities. All three norms are partially supported, and partially opposed by other norms.

Corporal punishment of children is one of the world’s most pervasive harmful practices, with four of every five children subjected to physical punishment on a regular basis. Unlike other harmful practices, where legal reform is of questionable utility, available research finds that legal reform to prohibit corporal punishment of children can accelerate changes in both attitudes and practice on the issue, even in countries where large majorities support corporal punishment. Individual country studies have found that public acceptance of corporal punishment drops—sometimes dramatically—after legal reform prohibiting the practice. Change appears most pronounced in countries that accompany legal prohibition with public education campaigns.


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