Self-fulfilling norms

Post 242: Jun 10 JDN 2458280

Imagine what it would be like to live in a country with an oppressive totalitarian dictator. For millions of people around the world, this is already reality. For us in the United States, it’s becoming more terrifyingly plausible all the time.

You would probably want to get rid of this dictator. And even if you aren’t in the government yourself, there are certainly things you could do to help with that: Join protests, hide political dissenters in your basement, publish refutations of the official propaganda on the Internet. But all of these things carry great risks. How do you know whether it’s worth the risk?

Well, a very important consideration in that reasoning is how many other people agree with you. In the extreme case where everyone but the dictator agrees with you, overthrowing him should be no problem. In the other extreme case where nobody agrees with you, attempting to overthrow him will inevitably result in being imprisoned and tortured as a political prisoner. Everywhere in between, your probability of success increases as the number of people who agree with you increases.

But how do you know how many people agree with you? You can’t just ask them—simply asking someone “Do you support the dictator?” is a dangerous thing to do in a totalitarian society. Simply by asking around, you could get yourself into a lot of trouble. And if people think you might be asking on behalf of the government, they’re always going to say they support the dictator whether or not they do.

If you believe that enough people would support you, you will take action against the dictator. But if you don’t believe that, you won’t take the chance. Now, consider the fact that many other people are in the same position: They too would only take action if they believed others would.

You are now in what’s called a coordination game. The best decision for you depends upon what everyone else decides. There are two equilibrium outcomes of this game: In one, you all keep your mouths shut and the dictator continues to oppress you. In the other, you all rise up together and overthrow the dictator. But if you take an action out of equilibrium, that could be very bad for you: If you rise up against the dictator without support, you’ll be imprisoned and tortured. If you support the dictator while others try to overthrow him, you might be held responsible for some of his crimes once the coup d’etat is complete.

And what about people who do support the dictator? They might still be willing to go along with overthrowing him, if they saw the writing on the wall. But if they think the dictator can still win, they will stand with him. So their beliefs, also, are vital in deciding whether to try to overthrow the dictator.

This results in a self-fulfilling norm. The dictator can be overthrown, if and only if enough people believe that the dictator can be overthrown.

There are much more mundane examples of of self-fulfilling norms. Most of our traffic laws are actually self-fulfilling norms as much as they are real laws; enforcement is remarkably weak, particularly when you compare it to the rate of compliance. Most of us have driven faster than the speed limit or run a red light on occasion; but how often do you drive on the wrong side of the road, or stop on green and go on red? It is best to drive on the right side of the road if, and only if, everyone believes it is best to drive on the right side of the road. That’s a self-fulfilling norm.

Self-fulfilling norms are a greatly underappreciated force in global history. We often speak as though historical changes are made by “great men”—powerful individuals who effect chance through their charisma or sheer force of will. But that power didn’t exist in a vacuum. For good (Martin Luther King) or for ill (Adolf Hitler), “great men” only have their power because they can amass followers. The reason they can amass followers is that a large number of people already agree with them—but are too afraid to speak up, because they are trapped in a self-fulfilling norm. The primary function of a great leader is to announce—at great personal risk—views that they believe others already hold. If indeed they are correct, then they can amass followers by winning the coordination game. If they are wrong, they may suffer terribly at the hands of a populace that hates them.

There is persuasion involved, but typically it’s not actually persuading people to believe that something is right; it’s persuading people to actually take action, convincing them that there is really enough chance of succeeding that it is worth the risk. Because of the self-fulfilling norm, this is a very all-or-nothing affair; do it right and you win, but do it wrong and your whole movement collapses. You essentially need to know exactly what battles you can win, so that you only fight those battles.

The good news is that information technology may actually make this easier. Honest assessment of people’s anonymous opinions is now easier than ever. Large-scale coordination of activity with relative security is now extremely easy, as we saw in the Arab Spring. This means that we are entering an era of rapid social change, where self-fulfilling norms will rise and fall at a rate never before seen.

In the best-case scenario, this means we get rid of all the bad norms and society becomes much better.

In the worst-case scenario, we may find out that most people actually believe in the bad norms, and this makes those norms all the more entrenched.

Only time will tell.