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

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In The Grammar of Society, Cristina Bicchieri examines social norms, such as fairness, cooperation, and reciprocity, in an effort to understand their nature and dynamics, the expectations that they generate, and how they evolve and change. Drawing on several intellectual traditions and methods, including those of social psychology, experimental economics, and evolutionary game theory, Bicchieri provides an integrated account of how social norms emerge, why and when we follow them, and the situations in which we are most likely to focus on relevant norms.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms, Cristina Bicchieri presents a new interpretation of social norms that will offend psychologists, economists, and sociologists alike, and therein lies its value." PsycCritiques Joachim I. Krueger

"Grammar is...interesting for its focused attempt to articulate how one conception of social norms can be made experimentally possible...Bicchieri should be praised for pursuing this kind of investigation."
Chauncey Maher, Georgetown University, Ethics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521573726
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 12/31/2005
  • Pages: 276
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Cristina Bicchieri is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the Director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economic Program. The author of many articles and books, including Rationality and Coordination, The Logic of Strategy, and Knowledge, Belief and Strategic Interaction, she has received fellowships from the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, and the London School of Economics (Leverhulme Trust).

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Cambridge University Press
0521573726 - The grammar of society - The nature and dynamics of social norms - by Cristina Bicchieri


The Rules We Live By


Despite the ubiquitous reference to the concept of social norms in the social sciences, there is no consensus about the power of social norms to direct human action. For some, norms have a central and regular influence on human behavior, while for others, the concept is too vague, and the evidence we have about norm compliance is too contradictory to support the claim that they appreciably affect behavior. Those who doubt that norms have a behavior-guiding force argue that human behavior only occasionally conforms with the dominant social norms. If the same norms are in place when behavior is norm-consistent as when it is norm inconsistent, why should we believe that norms mediated any of it?

Much of the discussion about the power norms have to affect behavior arises from a confusion about what is meant by 'norm.' A norm can be formal or informal, personal or collective, descriptive of what most people do, or prescriptive of behavior. In the same social setting, conformity to these different kinds of norms stems from a variety of motivations and produces distinct, sometimes even opposing, behavioral patterns. Take for example a culture in which many individuals have strong personal norms that prohibit corrupt practices and in which there are legal norms against bribing public officers, yet bribing is widespread and tolerated. Suppose we were able to independently assess whether an individual has a personal norm against corruption. Can we predict whether a person, who we know condemns corruption, will bribe a public officer when given a chance? Probably not, but we could come closer to a good prediction if we knew certain factors and cues are present in this situation and have an influence on the decision. The theories of norms we have inherited, mainly from sociology, offer little help, because they did not develop an understanding of the conditions under which individuals are likely to follow a norm or, when several norms may apply, what makes one of them focal.

A first step in the direction of a deeper understanding of what motivates us to follow a norm is to clarify what we mean by a social norm. 'Norm' is a term used to refer to a variety of behaviors, and accompanying expectations. These should not be lumped together, on pain of missing some important features that are of great help in understanding phenomena such as variance in norm compliance. Inconsistent conformity, for example, is to be expected with certain types of norms, but not with others. In this chapter I put forth a 'constructivist' theory of norms, one that explains norms in terms of the expectations and preferences of those who follow them. My view is that the very existence of a social norm depends on a sufficient number of people believing that it exists and pertains to a given type of situation, and expecting that enough other people are following it in those kinds of situations. Given the right kind of expectations, people will have conditional preferences for obeying a norm, meaning that preferences will be conditional on having expectations about other people's conformity. Such expectations and preferences will result in collective behaviors that further confirm the existence of the norm in the eyes of its followers.

Expectations and conditional preferences are the building blocks of several social constructs, though, not just social norms. Descriptive norms such as fashions and fads are also based on expectations of conformity and conditional preferences, and so are conventions, such as signaling systems, rules of etiquette, and traffic rules. In both cases, the preference for conformity does not clash with self-interest, especially if we define it in purely material terms.1 One can model descriptive norms and conventions as solutions to coordination games. Such games capture the structure of situations where there exist several possible equilibria and, although we might like one of them best, what we most want is to coordinate with others on any equilibrium; hence we act in conformity to what we expect others to do. Descriptive norms and conventions are thus representable as equilibria of original coordination games. Social norms, on the contrary, often go against narrow self-interest, as when we are required to cooperate, reciprocate, act fairly, or do anything that may involve some material cost or the forgoing of some benefit. The kinds of problems that social norms are meant to solve differ from the coordination problems that conventions and descriptive norms 'solve.' We need social norms in all those situations in which there is conflict of interest but also a potential for joint gain. The games that social norms solve are called mixed-motive games.2 Such mixed-motive games are not games of coordination to start with, but social norms, as I shall argue, transform mixed-motive games into coordination ones. This transformation, however, hinges on each individual expecting enough other people to follow the norm, too. If this expectation is violated, an individual will revert to playing the original game and to behaving 'selfishly.' This chapter thus starts with a precise definition of social norms and only later considers what differentiates such norms from descriptive norms and conventions. Because all three are based on expectations and conditional preferences, I pay special attention to the nature of expectations (empirical and/or normative) that support each construct.

The definition of social norm I am proposing should be taken as a rational reconstruction of what a social norm is, not a faithful descriptive account of the real beliefs and preferences people have or of the way in which they in fact deliberate. Such a reconstruction, however, will have to be reliable in that it must be possible to extract meaningful, testable predictions from it. This is one of the tasks I undertake in Chapters 3 and 4. An important claim I make in this chapter is that the belief/desire model of choice that is the core of my rational reconstruction of social norms does not commit us to avow that we always engage in conscious deliberation to decide whether to follow a norm. We may follow a norm automatically and thoughtlessly and yet still be able to explain our action in terms of beliefs and desires.

The simplistic, common view that we conform to norms either because of external sanctions or because they have been internalized flies in the face of much evidence that people sometimes obey norms even in the absence of any obvious incentive structure or personal commitment to what the norm stands for (Cialdini et al. 1990). Many who postulate inter- nal or external incentives as the sole reasons for compliance also maintain compliance is the result of a conscious process of balancing costs and benefits, culminating in a decision to conform or to transgress. Yet personal experience tells us that compliance is often automatic and unreflective: Even important social norms like those that regulate fair exchanges and reciprocation are often acted on without much thought to (or awareness of) their personal or social consequences. Whereas the literature on social norms has traditionally stressed the deliberational side of conformity, in this book I want to emphasize its automatic component. Both aspects are important, but too much emphasis on conscious deliberation may miss crucial links between decision heuristics and norms, as I explain in this chapter and the next.

Whenever we enter any environment, we have to decide how to behave. There are two ways to reach a decision. One is somewhat ideally depicted by the traditional rational choice model: We may systematically assess the situation, gather information, list and evaluate the possible consequences of different actions, assess the probability of each consequence occurring, and then calculate the expected utility of the alternative courses of action and choose one that maximizes our expected utility. I dub this the deliberational route to behavior. The process of rational deliberation ending in the choice of a course of action is likely to be costly in time, resources, and effort and to require considerable skill. The deliberational way to behavior is likely to be chosen when one is held accountable for one's choice; when the consequences may be particularly important and long-lasting; or when one has the time, knowledge, and disposition to ponder over alternative choices. But even in these cases deliberation may fall short of the ideal. Behavioral decision theorists have gathered compelling evidence that actors systematically violate the assumptions of rational choice theory (Camerer 2003). Thus the deliberational way need not assume perfect rationality. It only requires conscious deliberation and balancing of what one perceives (or misperceives) as the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action. On occasion we do engage in conscious deliberation, even if the process is marred by mistakes of judgment and calculation.

A second way to reach a decision relies on following behavioral rules that prescribe a particular course of action for the situation (or a class of similar situations). These guides to behavior include habits, roles, and, of course, norms. Once one adopts a behavioral rule, one follows it without the conscious and systematic assessment of the situation performed in deliberation. The question of how a particular behavioral rule is primed is of great interest. The answer is likely to lie in the interplay of (external) situational cues and (internal) categorization processes. These processes lie beyond awareness and probably occur in split seconds. Models of mental processes (Lamberts and Shanks 1997) suggest that, when faced with a new situation, we immediately search for cues about how to interpret it or what is appropriate behavior for that situation. It is conjectured that we compare the situation we face with others we remember that possess similar characteristics, and that this comparison activates behavior that is considered most "normal" for this type of situation. The comparison process is one of 'categorization,' of finding relevant similarities between the current context and other ones we have experienced in the past. To efficiently search our memory and group a new event with previously encountered ones, we use cognitive shortcuts. Cognitive shortcuts play a crucial role in categorization and the subsequent activation of scripts and schemata.3 Consequently, they are responsible for some norms rather than others being activated in different situations. Let us call this route to behavior the heuristic route. In the heuristic route, behavior is guided by default rules stored in memory that are cued by contextual stimuli. Norms are one class of default rules. According to the heuristic route, norm compliance is an automatic response to situational cues that focus our attention on a particular norm, rather than a conscious decision to give priority to normative considerations. On the heuristic view, norms are context-dependent, meaning that different social norms will be activated, or appear appropriate, depending on how a situation is understood. In turn, our understanding of a situation is influenced by which previous contexts we view as similar to the present one, and this process of assessing similarities and 'fitting' a situation into a pre-existing category will make specific norms salient. I spell out in detail the process of drawing social inferences and categorizing in the next chapter.

The distinction between deliberational and heuristic routes to behavior is a useful simplification, and it should be taken as such. The truth is that we often combine the two routes, and what is a staple of the heuristic process can also be an object of deliberation. Conformity to a norm, for example, is not always an automatic, nondeliberational affair. Especially when we are tempted to shirk an obligation, the thought of the personal and social consequences of alternative courses of action is often present and important in determining our choice. I want to stress, again, that deliberation is not synonymous with 'rational deliberation', in part because the list of possible mistakes and cognitive impairments with which our decision processes are fraught is potentially very long. Rational deliberation is better conceived of as an ideal type, against which we measure the amplitude of our deviations. What is important in deliberation is the conscious processing of information and evaluation of options. Whether ideally or less than ideally rational, deliberation refers to beliefs and desires of which we are aware: Deliberation is the process of consciously choosing what we most desire according to our beliefs. In the deliberational view, beliefs and desires (preferences) are treated as mental states of which we are conscious, at least in the course of deciding which action to take.

The problem with taking beliefs and desires to be conscious mental states is that they can then play no role in the heuristic route to behavior. There is, however, a long and reputable philosophical tradition that takes beliefs and desires to be dispositions to act in a certain way in the appropriate circumstance. According to the dispositional account, to say that someone has a belief or a preference implies that we expect such motives to manifest themselves in the relevant circumstances. Thus, for example, one might automatically obey a norm of truth-telling without thinking of the beliefs and preferences that underlie one's behavior. These beliefs and preferences might become manifest only when they happen to be unfulfilled. To assess the nature of such beliefs and desires, all we need is a simple counterfactual exercise. Suppose we ask someone if he would keep telling the truth (as he normally and almost automatically does) in a world where he came to realize that people systematically lie. Our subject may answer in a variety of ways, but whatever course of action he claims he would choose, it is likely that he never thought of it before. He did not know, for example, that he would be ready to become a liar until he was put in the condition to reflect on it. Our subject may reason that it would be stupid on his part to keep telling the truth, as it would put him at an obvious disadvantage. Evidently his preference for sincerity is conditional on expecting reciprocity. If these expectations were not met, his preference would be different. Note that dispositions need not be stable: Preferences, for example, can be context-dependent, in the sense that even a small change of context may elicit different, even opposite, preferences. The research on framing effects shows just that (Tversky and Kahneman 1981). The heuristic way to behavior seems perfectly compatible with a dispositional account of beliefs and desires. Namely, the default rules that we tend to automatically follow are accompanied and supported by beliefs and desires that we become aware of only when they are challenged. Surprise in this case breeds awareness of our underlying motives. Moreover, whenever a norm is 'cued' or made salient in a particular environment, the mechanism that primes it elicits the beliefs and preferences that support that particular norm. The remainder of this chapter presents a taxonomy of norms that relies on preferences and beliefs as 'building blocks.'

The idea that social norms may be cued, and hence manipulated, is attractive. It suggests that we may be able to induce pro-social behavior and maintain social order at low cost. Norms differ in different cultures, and what cues a Westerner into cooperation will probably differ from what cues a Mapuche Indian (Henrich 2000). In both cases, however, it may be possible to structure the environment in a way that produces desirable behavior. If you sail along the Italian coast, you will notice large beach posters that invite sailors not to litter and pollute "your" sea. In Sweden, instead, environmentalist appeals always refer to "our" environment. The individualistic Italians are seemingly thought to be more responsive to an invitation to protect a "private" good, whereas Swedes are expected to be sensitive to pleas for the common good. Knowing what makes people focus on the environment in a positive way can be a powerful tool in the hands of shrewd policymakers. Still, developing successful policies that rely on social norms presents several difficulties. To successfully manipulate social settings, we need to predict how people will interpret a given context, which cues will 'stand out' as salient, and how particular cues relate to certain norms. When multiple conflicting norms could apply, we should be able to tell which cues will favor one of them. Many norms are not socially beneficial, and once established they are difficult to eliminate. If we know what induces people to conform to "anti-social" norms, we may have a chance to curb destructive behavior. Without a better understanding of the mechanisms through which norms control our actions, however, there is little hope of predicting and thus influencing behavior. The mechanisms that induce conformity are very different for different kinds of norms. Consequently, a good understanding of their diversity will prevent us from focusing on the wrong type of norm in our efforts to induce pro-social behavior.

In the remainder of this chapter I will introduce the reader to my definition of social norms, descriptive norms, conventions, and the conditions under which one might see individuals following any of these. I shall especially focus on the four (individually) necessary and (jointly) sufficient conditions for a social norm to exist that I develop in the following pages: contingency, empirical expectations, normative expectations, and conditional preferences.

Social Norms

Social norms are frequently confused with codified rules, normative expectations, or recurrent, observable behavior. However, there are significant problems with such definitions of social norms. By the term social norm, I shall always refer to informal norms, as opposed to formal, codified norms such as legal rules. Social norms are, like legal ones, public and shared, but, unlike legal rules, which are supported by formal sanctions, social norms may not be enforced at all. When they are enforced, the sanctions are informal, as when the violation of a group norm brings about responses that range from gossip to open censure, ostracism, or dishonor for the transgressor. Some such norms may become part of our system of values, and we may feel a strong obligation to obey them. Guilt and remorse will accompany transgression, as much as the breach of a moral rule elicits painfully negative feelings in the offender. Social norms should also be distinguished from moral rules: As I shall argue in the following, expectations are crucial in sustaining the former but not necessarily the latter. In particular, conformity to a social norm is conditional on expectations about other people's behavior and/or beliefs. The feelings of shame and guilt that may accompany a transgression merely reinforce one's tendency to conform, but they are never the sole or the ultimate determinants of conformity. I will come back to this point later.

A norm cannot be simply identified with a recurrent, collective behavioral pattern. For one, norms can be either prescriptive or proscriptive: In the latter case, we usually do not observe the proscribed behavior. As anyone who has lived in a foreign country knows, learning proscriptive norms can be difficult and the learning process slow and fraught with misunderstandings and false steps. Often the legal system helps, in that many proscriptive norms are made explicit and supported by laws, but a host of socially relevant proscriptions such as "do not stare at someone you pass by" or "do not touch people you are not intimate with when you talk to them" are not codified and can only be learned by trial and error. In most cases in which a proscriptive norm is in place, we do not observe the behavior proscribed by the norm, and it is impossible to determine whether the absence of certain behaviors is due to a proscription or to something else, unless we assess people's beliefs and expectations. Furthermore, if we were to adopt a purely behavioral account of norms, nothing would distinguish shared fairness criteria from, say, the collective morning habit of brushing one's teeth. It would also be difficult to deal with those cases in which people pay lip service to the norm in public and deviate in private. Avoiding a purely behavioral account means focusing on the role expectations play in supporting those kinds of collective behaviors that we take to be norm-driven. After all, I brush my teeth whether or not I expect others to do the same, but I would not even try to ask for a salary proportionate to my education if I expected my co-workers to go by the rule of giving to each in proportion to seniority. There are also behaviors that can be explained only by the existence of norms, even if the behavior prescribed by the norm in question is never observed. In his study of the Ik, Turnbull (1972) reports that these starved hunter-gatherers tried hard to elude situations where their compliance with norms of reciprocity was expected. Thus they would go out of their way to avoid being in the role of gift-taker. A leaking roof would be repaired at night, so as to ward off offers to help and future obligations to repay the favor. Hunting was a solitary and furtive activity, so as to escape the obligation to share one's bounty with anyone encountered along the way. Much of the Ik's behavior can be explained as a successful attempt at eluding existing reciprocity norms. The Ik seemed to have collective beliefs about what sort of behavior was prescribed/proscribed in a given social context but acted in ways that prevented the underlying norms from being activated. Their practices demonstrate that it is not necessary to observe compliance to argue that a norm exists and affects behavior.

As Turnbull's example shows, having normative beliefs and expecting others to conform to a norm do not always result in a norm being activated. Nobody is violating the norm, but everybody is trying to avoid situations where they would have to follow it. Thus, simply focusing on norms as clusters of expectations might be as misleading as focusing only on the behavioral dimension, because there are many examples of discrepancies between normative expectations and behavior. Take the widely acknowledged norm of self-interest (Miller and Ratner 1998): It is remarkable to observe how often people (especially in the United States) expect others to act selfishly, even when they are prepared to act altruistically themselves. Studies show that people's willingness to give blood is not altered by monetary incentives, but typically those very people who are willing to donate blood for free expect others to donate blood only in the presence of a sufficient monetary reward (Wuthnow 1991). Similarly, when asked whether they would rent an apartment to an unmarried couple, all landlords interviewed in Oregon in the early 1970s answered positively, but they estimated that only 50% of other landlords would accept an unmarried couple as tenants (Dawes 1972). Such cases are rather common; what is puzzling is that people may expect a given norm to be upheld in the absence of information about other people's conforming behavior and in the face of personal evidence to the contrary. Thus, simply focusing on people's expectations may tell us very little about collective behavior.

If a purely behavioral definition of norms is deficient, and one solely based on expectations is questionable, what are we left with? Norms refer to behavior, to actions over which people have control, and are supported by shared expectations about what should/should not be done in different types of social situations. Norms, however, cannot just be identified with observable behavior, nor can they be equated with normative beliefs, as normative beliefs may or may not result in appropriate actions. In what follows I introduce a definition of social norms that will be helpful in shedding light on the conceptual differences between different types of social rules. My definition coincides with ordinary usage in some respects but departs from that usage in others. Given the fact that the term has been put to multiple uses, it would be unrealistic to expect a single definition to agree with what each person using the term means. The goal of giving a specific definition is to single out what is fundamental to social norms, what differentiates them from other types of social constructs.

Besides helping in drawing a taxonomy of social rules, a successful definition should provide conditions under which normative beliefs can be expected to be consistent with behavior. This means that those conditions that are part of the definition of social norm would be used as premises in a practical argument whose conclusion is the decision to conform to a norm. This does not entail that we normally engage in such practical reasoning and deliberation and are consciously aware of our conforming choices. We should not confuse adopting a belief/desire explanatory framework with assuming awareness of our own mental processes. As I shall discuss in the last section, the fact that we are mostly unaware of our mental processes, and often are not fully conscious of what we are thinking and doing, is no objection to a belief/desire model of choice.

The definition I am proposing should be taken as a rational reconstruction of what a social norm is, not a description of the real preferences and beliefs people have or the way in which they in fact deliberate (if at all). The advantage of a rational reconstruction is that it substitutes a precise concept for an imprecise one, thus removing the conceptual difficulties and vagueness related to everyday usage. A rational reconstruction of the concept of norm specifies in which sense one may say that norms are rational, or compliance with a norm is rational.4 Not every rational reconstruction will do, though. For example, a rational reconstruction that is built on a belief/desire structure is constrained by the requirement that, were beliefs to be different (in a specified sense), we would expect behavior to change in predictable ways. In other words, a successful rational reconstruction must allow meaningful, interesting predictions to be made.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1 The rules we live by 1
2 Habits of the mind 55
3 A taste for fairness 100
4 Covenants without swords 140
5 Informational cascades and unpopular norms 176
6 The evolution of a fairness norm 213
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2006

    A great book

    Great book. Finally we have a theory of social norms that gives an operational definition of what a norm is. The treatment of norms is comprehensive: it goes from the psychology of norm-following to the dynamics of norm formation. I particularly liked the chapters on experiments: they show how a theory of norms can explain some otherwise puzzling experimental results about fairness and cooperation better than the 'social preference' models.

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