The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms


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The resilience of undesirable behaviours may be surprising—new ways of interpreting a social category may simply be added to previous ones without replacing them. Bicchieri mentions the telling example of this Tanzanian village in which what is expected from a good wife came to include working and providing for her family not instead of, but in addition to , cleaning, meal preparation, social activities and marital duties. As changes need to be simultaneous in a population, all such tools rely on publicity.

Legal means, and top-down interventions more generally, work only when institutions are trusted and when changes remain moderate close to the existing norms. Economic incentives typically lack efficiency because they degrade or corrupt the behaviour they promote. But media-based solutions such as progressive soap operas or nudging information campaigns have been seen to lead to measurable changes; and so has deliberation, which allows individuals to openly discuss taboos, at least when it is not distorted by power dynamics or perceived as manipulative. Populations always are heterogeneous: their members differ with respect to their sensitivity to norms, their autonomy, their perception of and sensitivity to risk First-movers may be more autonomous than others; once they deviate, the risk of deviance is perceived as diminished by others, which may lead to more deviance, and so on.

So, individuals of the trendsetter type autonomous, risk and norm-insensitive—also measurable, in principle, through surveys and vignettes should be targeted first by interventions that aim to change norms. Once they reach a certain threshold, population-level change may be triggered, often quite suddenly.

One favourable scenario for norm change involves the formation of small trendsetter groups, the behaviour of which then propagates by way of public commitments in small communities or media interventions in larger ones —which Bicchieri highlights as particularly efficient. There is no magic bullet for getting rid of undesirable social norms.

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Rather, there are several possible changes, various factors on which to intervene and a number of tools by which such interventions may be performed. Theory only leads you so far; at some point, the local peculiarities of the targeted behaviour, of the community that has adopted it, of the reasons why they so behave, including the links with their underlying beliefs and values, all become relevant and call for a tailor-made process.

Accounts are not unified, tightly integrated wholes, especially in the social sciences; part of them may be empirically idle. This formal, quantitative aspect is absent from her new book, for at least two reasons. First, the game-theoretic model had little predictive import—it depended crucially on an individual's norm sensitivity, which is difficult to assess quantitatively in general. Second and more importantly, when dealing with norm change in practice, one is interested in determining which interventions are causally efficacious, that is, whether an intervention would make a difference.

The intensity of the causal effect is only secondary—of course, the stronger the better, but the main issue is to find out what works to begin with.

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What matters is that we have a list of the possible causally relevant factors and of their relations. Bicchieri mentions, as fundamental building blocks, factual beliefs, empirical expectations, personal normative beliefs, normative expectations, and preferences. Or we may be interested in their dependence: for instance, that of preferences on normative expectations.

All this has implications on the possibility and nature of a successful intervention—but the precise labelling of sets of ingredients does not. In other words, practical application may trump semantics: what matters is that our distinct relevant sets of factors somehow carve the causal reality at its joints. Semantic disagreements need not impinge on applications in the wild. This is not the basic claim that observation provides evidence for theories, but that once interpreted and probed in the light of our theory, phenomena may reveal new links between theoretical properties or new aspects on which the theory is still silent.

Another useful lesson gained from practice is that our normative nature abhors a vacuum. It is harder to suppress a norm altogether than to replace it by another; and a good way to fight a bad norm is to reframe its alternatives positively by piggybacking on other shared values of the population for instance by finding ways to describe deviant behaviours positively, e.

In another telling example, Bicchieri highlights the fact that the abandonment of open defecation by the adoption of public latrines was only successful when communities decided themselves to monitor and sanction deviant behaviours, and collectively chose the kind of sanction to be adopted In other words, micro-level processes are integral to the success of any change of social norms.

This betrays, once again, the need for sensitivity to local conditions and the limits of external paternalistic attitudes. Bicchieri discusses in depth a plethora of field experiments to show how simple contextual factors can induce people to behave in completely different ways.


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For instance, the propensity to litter has been found to depend on how clean the environment is or the attitude of others towards littering, and the disposition to provide help in an emergency that has been found to be related to the number of bystanders and other contextual factors. Viewed in this light, Bicchieri convincingly argues that these empirical results are more robust than originally thought.

According to Bicchieri, motivations to follow a norm can be assigned to three categories. These two types of motivations, rooted in normative expectations, are crucial for the emergence and sustainability of norms in the absence of monitoring. On the other hand, subjects may be motivated by the desire to avoid sanctions, a source of motivation for a minority of the set of potential followers.


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Norm followers whose behavior is grounded in the fear of punishment need not find the rule legitimate and may deviate when their actions are not observed. Bicchieri claims that situational cues are important yet not alone capable of producing norm activation, as they need to be focused upon and properly interpreted.

Bicchieri argues that the wealth of experimental studies pointing at the conditional nature of norm compliance and the context specificity of norm activation are consistent with a theory of script activation. According to this theory, social norms are embedded into cognitive structures that represent stored knowledge about people, events and roles, and provide the subject with the necessary expectations. Once an individual has identified and categorized a situational cue, for instance a market transaction or a reciprocal exchange, a script providing information about the appropriate behavior for that role is activated.

Based upon ample evidence in the psychological literature, Bicchieri identifies another cognitive mechanism leading to the formation of empirical and normative expectations, which is particularly important for the emergence of social norms. This form of essentialism is a powerful source of expectations in social contexts, promoting as a by product the emergence of norms: it makes us ascribing motivations to agents prior to interaction.

This is an elegant way to bridge the gap between psychology and the social sciences, showing how our own cognitive limitations could contribute to emergence of norms. We have described the general structure of norms. We need now to make explicit how this notion of social norm is integrated within a proper utility function. Yet subjects, for whom the PD elicits the norm of cooperation, will have different preferences over outcomes. The activation of the norm of cooperation and the norm-based utility function transform the original game into a Coordination Game with two strict Nash equilibria: one in which both players cooperate, which is Pareto superior, and one in which both defect.

Essentialist players, for whom the game elicits the norm of cooperation and who think other players are like them, will expect cooperation and will therefore prefer to cooperate. There are, as a matter of fact, many feasible societies in which resource allocation is clearly unequal, but no viable societies lacking social norms of reciprocation and cooperation. This raises the question of how a norm of fairness could have emerged in an evolutionary setting.

To tackle this issue, Bicchieri simulates a model in which individuals within a population play a repeated Ultimatum Game. Along the process subjects assume that there is a real norm to be discovered and play best responses given their beliefs. The endogenous variables of this process, ki and Ni , evolve from initially given probability distributions by a kind of reinforcement process.

The simulations converge to equal division, or quasi-equal division in less than 20 interactions. These results are based upon two psychologically plausible assumptions. Subjects are assumed to display a propensity to herding behavior and to have a preference for following what is believed to be a shared norm. Proposers form expectations regarding the amount that receivers think they should offer by projection, assuming that all other individuals in the population share the norm perceived by them.

The issue is of course how to justify the primitive assumptions of this model. According to Bicchieri, the exogenously given sensitivity to defections and the disposition to punish, represented in her model by k, have evolved out of repeated play of social dilemma-type of situations and then propagated to all sorts of social norms, including those that are not essential to the survival of a society.

There are two comments that we would like to make. We are going to discuss them in turn.

Cristina Bicchieri - Google Scholar Citations

In order to illustrate this point, we briefly summarize her treatment of the Ultimatum Game and the Dictator Game. The Responder can either accept or reject the offer. If he accepts it the players end up with M-x and x respectively.

If the Responder rejects the offer, both players end up with nothing. A rational Proposer should offer the minimum amount he believes the Responder is willing to accept and a rational Responder should accept any amount greater than zero. This yields a subgame perfect equilibrium where the Proposer offers 1 cent and the Responder accepts it. The Dictator Game is a variant of the Ultimatum Game in which there is no possibility of rejection. The Responder must accept whatever amount the Proposer offers. Experimental evidence shows that in the Dictator Game the offers of Proposers are sensibly smaller than in the Ultimatum Game.

The norm based utility function can explain the data concerning the Ultimatum Game under different parametric settings assuming that the game elicits a norm of fairness. The same holds for other fairness-based frameworks, which Bicchieri thoroughly describes. The problem is how to explain the data concerning the Dictator Game, a problem that the alternative theories discussed in the book also face.

Bicchieri argues that in this game there is no obvious applicable norm, a statement that she supports with the results of a survey p. This fact should decrease the amount offered approximating the selfish solution.

The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms

We may wonder if this is the only available interpretation. In fact another way to make sense of these empirical findings would be to keep the norm of fairness and relax the effect of the fear of punishment that enters the norm based utility function through the normative expectations with sanctions. This second option would allow us to ascribe to the Ultimatum Game and the Dictator Game the same functional form for the fairness norm. What would change is the value of one of the arguments of this function. This could yield the necessary change in the amount offered, explaining away the different empirical findings concerning each game.

The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms
The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms
The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms
The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms
The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms
The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms
The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms

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