te Velde

How do Descriptive Norms Influence Behaviour?

te Velde, V. (University of Queensland), Louis, W. (University of Queensland)

Descriptive norms, which measure the prevalence of moral behaviour (“cooperation”) in a population, and injunctive norms, which measure beliefs about the moral imperative to cooperate, are known to be powerful motivators of cooperation. Understanding the channels of these effects is complicated by the fact that injunctive and descriptive norms are tightly related: descriptive norms provide information about others’ injunctive beliefs, about the costs and benefits of cooperation, and about the likelihood of sanction. Injunctive beliefs, in turn, are affected by the costs and benefits of cooperation and affect sanctioning behaviour. We study the informative influence of descriptive norms by exogenously changing the relationship between descriptive norms and the public benefit to cooperation. By comparing behaviour in games in which higher descriptive norms translate into either higher, lower, or constant marginal social benefit from cooperation, and in which descriptive expectations are exogenously determined to be either high or low, we find that descriptive norms powerfully influence behaviour independently of their informational content. Injunctive norms, as well, track descriptive norms more than the actual costs and benefits of cooperation. This reveals a preference for moral conformity that is divorced from the material marginal costs and benefits to cooperation, either private or social.


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