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Concept: Norm

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Human behavior is strongly affected by culturally transmitted norms and values. Certain norms are internalized (i.e., acting according to a norm becomes an end in itself rather than merely a tool in achieving certain goals or avoiding social sanctions). Humans' capacity to internalize norms likely evolved in our ancestors to simplify solving certain challenges-including social ones. Here we study theoretically the evolutionary origins of the capacity to internalize norms. In our models, individuals can choose to participate in collective actions as well as punish free riders. In making their decisions, individuals attempt to maximize a utility function in which normative values are initially irrelevant but play an increasingly important role if the ability to internalize norms emerges. Using agent-based simulations, we show that norm internalization evolves under a wide range of conditions so that cooperation becomes “instinctive.” Norm internalization evolves much more easily and has much larger effects on behavior if groups promote peer punishment of free riders. Promoting only participation in collective actions is not effective. Typically, intermediate levels of norm internalization are most frequent but there are also cases with relatively small frequencies of “oversocialized” individuals willing to make extreme sacrifices for their groups no matter material costs, as well as “undersocialized” individuals completely immune to social norms. Evolving the ability to internalize norms was likely a crucial step on the path to large-scale human cooperation.

Concepts: Evolution, Sociology, Heteronormativity, Social philosophy, Norm

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Social norms are an important element in explaining how humans achieve very high levels of cooperative activity. It is widely observed that, when norms can be enforced by peer punishment, groups are able to resolve social dilemmas in prosocial, cooperative ways. Here we show that punishment can also encourage participation in destructive behaviours that are harmful to group welfare, and that this phenomenon is mediated by a social norm. In a variation of a public goods game, in which the return to investment is negative for both group and individual, we find that the opportunity to punish led to higher levels of contribution, thereby harming collective payoffs. A second experiment confirmed that, independently of whether punishment is available, a majority of subjects regard the efficient behaviour of non-contribution as socially inappropriate. The results show that simply providing a punishment opportunity does not guarantee that punishment will be used for socially beneficial ends, because the social norms that influence punishment behaviour may themselves be destructive.Punishment by peers can enforce social norms, such as contributing to a public good. Here, Abbink and colleagues show that individuals will enforce norms even when contributions reduce the net benefit of the group, resulting in the maintenance of wasteful contributions.

Concepts: Sociology, Heteronormativity, Convention, Norm, Mores

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Indirect reciprocity is a major mechanism in the maintenance of cooperation among unrelated individuals. Indirect reciprocity leads to conditional cooperation according to social norms that discriminate the good (those who deserve to be rewarded with help) and the bad (those who should be punished by refusal of help). Despite intensive research, however, there is no definitive consensus on what social norms best promote cooperation through indirect reciprocity, and it remains unclear even how those who refuse to help the bad should be assessed. Here, we propose a new simple norm called “Staying” that prescribes abstaining from assessment. Under the Staying norm, the image of the person who makes the decision to give help stays the same as in the last assessment if the person on the receiving end has a bad image. In this case, the choice about whether or not to give help to the potential receiver does not affect the image of the potential giver. We analyze the Staying norm in terms of evolutionary game theory and demonstrate that Staying is most effective in establishing cooperation compared to the prevailing social norms, which rely on constant monitoring and unconditional assessment. The application of Staying suggests that the strict application of moral judgment is limited.

Concepts: Game theory, Sociology, Heteronormativity, Norm, Mores

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Since the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a widespread belief that the social norm of “women and children first” (WCF) gives women a survival advantage over men in maritime disasters, and that captains and crew members give priority to passengers. We analyze a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities. Our results provide a unique picture of maritime disasters. Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared with men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. We also find that: the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior; there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms; women fare no better when they constitute a small share of the ship’s complement; the length of the voyage before the disaster appears to have no impact on women’s relative survival rate; the sex gap in survival rates has declined since World War I; and women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks. Taken together, our findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression “every man for himself.”

Concepts: Sociology, Heteronormativity, Survival rate, Convention, Relative survival, Norm

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Indirect reciprocity, besides providing a convenient framework to address the evolution of moral systems, offers a simple and plausible explanation for the prevalence of cooperation among unrelated individuals. By helping someone, an individual may increase her/his reputation, which may change the pre-disposition of others to help her/him in the future. This, however, depends on what is reckoned as a good or a bad action, i.e., on the adopted social norm responsible for raising or damaging a reputation. In particular, it remains an open question which social norms are able to foster cooperation in small-scale societies, while enduring the wide plethora of stochastic affects inherent to finite populations. Here we address this problem by studying the stochastic dynamics of cooperation under distinct social norms, showing that the leading norms capable of promoting cooperation depend on the community size. However, only a single norm systematically leads to the highest cooperative standards in small communities. That simple norm dictates that only whoever cooperates with good individuals, and defects against bad ones, deserves a good reputation, a pattern that proves robust to errors, mutations and variations in the intensity of selection.

Concepts: Sociology, Heteronormativity, Convention, Norm

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There is interest in the hypothesis that social norms are a determinant of healthy and unhealthy dietary practices. The objective of our work was to assess the weight of evidence that experimentally manipulated information about eating norms influences food intake and choice. This systematic review of experimental studies examined whether providing information about other peoples' eating habits influences food intake or choices. To inform the review, three electronic databases (PsycINFO, MEDLINE, and the Social Sciences Citation Index) were searched during July 2012. A narrative approach was used to synthesize studies that examined the influence of norms on food choice and meta-analyses were used to synthesize the effect that informational eating norms have on quantity of food consumed. Fifteen experimental studies were reviewed. There was evidence that both high intake norms (Z=3.84; P=0.0001; standardized mean difference 0.41, 95% confidence interval 0.20 to 0.63) and low intake norms (Z=2.78; P=0.005; standard mean difference -0.35, 95% confidence interval -0.59 to -0.10) exerted moderate influence on amounts of food eaten. There was consistent evidence that norms influenced food choices; norm information indicating that others make low-energy or high-energy food choices significantly increased the likelihood that participants made similar choices. Information about eating norms influences choice and quantity of food eaten, which could be used to promote healthy changes to dietary behavior.

Concepts: Statistics, Nutrition, Evidence-based medicine, Systematic review, Eating, Sociology, Meta-analysis, Norm

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As the percentage of wives outearning their husbands grows, the traditional social norm of the male breadwinner is challenged. The upward income comparison of the husband may cause psychological distress that affects partners' mental and physical health in ways that affect decisions on marriage, divorce, and careers. This article studies this impact through sexual and mental health problems. Using wage and prescription medication data from Denmark, we implement a regression discontinuity design to show that men outearned by their wives are more likely to use erectile dysfunction medication than their male breadwinner counterparts, even when this inequality is small. Breadwinner wives suffer increased insomnia/anxiety medication usage, with similar effects for men. We find no effects for unmarried couples or for men who earned less than their fiancée prior to marriage. Our results suggest that social norms play important roles in dictating how individuals respond to upward social comparisons.

Concepts: Marriage, Sociology, Husband, Heteronormativity, Norm

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Humans are unique among all species in their ability to develop and enforce social norms, but there is wide variation in the strength of social norms across human societies. Despite this fundamental aspect of human nature, there has been surprisingly little research on how social norm violations are detected at the neurobiological level. Building on the emerging field of cultural neuroscience, we combine noninvasive electroencephalography (EEG) with a new social norm violation paradigm to examine the neural mechanisms underlying the detection of norm violations and how they vary across cultures. EEG recordings from Chinese and US participants (n = 50) showed consistent negative deflection of event-related potential around 400 ms (N400) over the central and parietal regions that served as a culture-general neural marker of detecting norm violations. The N400 at the frontal and temporal regions, however, was only observed among Chinese but not US participants, illustrating culture-specific neural substrates of the detection of norm violations. Further, the frontal N400 predicted a variety of behavioral and attitudinal measurements related to the strength of social norms that have been found at the national and state levels, including higher culture superiority and self-control but lower creativity. There were no cultural differences in the N400 induced by semantic violation, suggesting a unique cultural influence on social norm violation detection. In all, these findings provided the first evidence, to our knowledge, for the neurobiological foundations of social norm violation detection and its variation across cultures.

Concepts: Sociology, Neuroscience, Electroencephalography, Anthropology, Heteronormativity, Event-related potential, Norm, Mores

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Expectations, exerting influence through social norms, are a very strong candidate to explain how complex societies function. In the Dictator game (DG), people expect generous behavior from others even if they cannot enforce any sharing of the pie. Here we assume that people donate following their expectations, and that they update their expectations after playing a DG by reinforcement learning to construct a model that explains the main experimental results in the DG. Full agreement with the experimental results is reached when some degree of mismatch between expectations and donations is added into the model. These results are robust against the presence of envious agents, but affected if we introduce selfish agents that do not update their expectations. Our results point to social norms being on the basis of the generous behavior observed in the DG and also to the wide applicability of reinforcement learning to explain many strategic interactions.

Concepts: Sociology, Heteronormativity, Norm

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Corruption poses one of the major societal challenges of our time. Considerable advances have been made in understanding corruption on a macro level, yet the psychological antecedents of corrupt behavior remain largely unknown. In order to explain why some people engage in corruption while others do not, we explored the impact of descriptive social norms on corrupt behavior by using a novel behavioral measure of corruption. We conducted three studies to test whether perceived descriptive norms of corruption (i.e. the belief about the prevalence of corruption in a specific context) influence corrupt behavior. The results indicated that descriptive norms highly correlate with corrupt behavior-both when measured before (Study 1) or after (Study 2) the behavioral measure of corruption. Finally, we adopted an experimental design to investigate the causal effect of descriptive norms on corruption (Study 3). Corrupt behavior in the corruption game significantly drops when participants receive short anti-corruption descriptive norm primes prior to the game. These findings indicate that perceived descriptive norms can impact corrupt behavior and, possibly, could offer an explanation for inter-personal and inter-cultural variation in corrupt behavior in the real world. We discuss implications of these findings and draw avenues for future research.

Concepts: Psychology, Understanding, Sociology, Heteronormativity, Convention, Norm