To a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms

Dec 15 JDN 2458833

The language we speak, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear—indeed, the fact that we wear clothes at all—are all the direct result of social norms. But norms run much deeper than this: Almost everything we do is more norm than not.

Why do sleep and wake up at a particular time of day? For most people, the answer is that they needed to get up to go to work. Why do you need to go to work at that specific time? Why does almost everyone go to work at the same time? Social norms.

Even the most extreme human behaviors are often most comprehensible in terms of social norms. The most effective predictive models of terrorism are based on social networks: You are much more likely to be a terrorist if you know people who are terrorists, and much more likely to become a terrorist if you spend a lot of time talking with terrorists. Cultists and conspiracy theorists seem utterly baffling if you imagine that humans form their beliefs rationally—and totally unsurprising if you realize that humans mainly form their beliefs by matching those around them.

For a long time, economists have ignored social norms at our peril; we’ve assumed that financial incentives will be sufficient to motivate behavior, when social incentives can very easily override them. Indeed, it is entirely possible for a financial incentive to have a negative effect, when it crowds out a social incentive: A good example is a friend who would gladly come over to help you with something as a friend, but then becomes reluctant if you offer to pay him $25. I previously discussed another example, where taking a mentor out to dinner sounds good but paying him seems corrupt.

Why do you drive on the right side of the road (or the left, if you’re in Britain)? The law? Well, the law is already a social norm. But in fact, it’s hardly just that. You probably sometimes speed or run red lights, which are also in violation of traffic laws. Yet somehow driving on the right side seem to be different. Well, that’s because driving on the right has a much stronger norm—and in this case, that norm is self-enforcing with the risk of severe bodily harm or death.

This is a good example of why it isn’t necessary for everyone to choose to follow a norm for that norm to have a great deal of power. As long as the norms include some mechanism for rewarding those who follow and punishing those who don’t, norms can become compelling even to those who would prefer not to obey. Sometimes it’s not even clear whether people are following a norm or following direct incentives, because the two are so closely aligned.

Humans are not the only social species, but we are by far the most social species. We form larger, more complex groups than any other animal; we form far more complex systems of social norms; and we follow those norms with slavish obedience. Indeed, I’m a little suspicious of some of the evolutionary models predicting the evolution of social norms, because they predict it too well; they seem to suggest that it should arise all the time, when in fact it’s only a handful of species who exhibit it at all and only we who build our whole existence around it.

Along with our extreme capacity for altruism, this is another way that human beings actually deviate more from the infinite identical psychopaths of neoclassical economics than most other animals. Yes, we’re smarter than other animals; other animals are more likely to make mistakes (though certainly we make plenty of our own). But most other animals aren’t motivated by entirely different goals than individual self-interest (or “evolutionary self-interest” in a Selfish Gene sort of sense) the way we typically are. Other animals try to be selfish and often fail; we try not to be selfish and usually succeed.

Economics experiments often go out of their way to exclude social motives as much as possible—anonymous random matching with no communication, for instance—and still end up failing. Human behavior in experiments is consistent, systematic—and almost never completely selfish.

Once you start looking for norms, you see them everywhere. Indeed, it becomes hard to see anything else. To a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.