How norms emerge from conventions (and change)
Speaker: Wojtek Przepiorka (Department of Sociology, Utrecht University / ICS)
Social norms regulate our behavior in a variety of mundane and far-reaching contexts, from tipping at the restaurant to social distancing during a pandemic. However, notwithstanding their ubiquity and relevance, how social norms emerge, persist and change is still poorly understood. Theoretical work in different disciplines has conjectured that conventions (i.e. recurring patterns of behavior in social interaction) can acquire normative force over time thereby becoming more persistent despite changing economic incentives. Here, for the first time, we observe the emergence of social norms from conventions in a controlled experiment. Participants first interact under an incentive structure that favors the emergence of a specific convention and then face a change in that incentive structure while still interacting with each other. We investigate whether spontaneously emerging conventions gain normativity and, if so, whether their normative underpinning makes them resistant to change. To track the co-emergence of behavior and normativity, we employ a set of measures to elicit participants’ first- and second-order normative beliefs as well as their (dis)approval of other participants’ behaviors. Our results show that even in the limited duration of a lab experiment, conventions gain normativity that makes them resistant to change, especially if these conventions promote egalitarian outcomes and the change in economic incentives is relatively small. Our findings contribute to our understanding of how cognitive, social and economic factors interact in bringing about social change.