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Sunday, January 3, 2021

Do Disasters Affect Adherence to Social Norms?

Max Winkler
Research Paper
Originally published 26 NOV 20


Universally, social norms prescribe behavior and attitudes, but societies differ widely in how strictly individuals adhere to the norms and punish those who do not. This paper shows that collective traumatic experiences, henceforth “disasters”, lead to stricter adherence to social norms.  To establish this result, I combine data on the occurrences of conflicts, epidemics, and natural and economic disasters with the World Value Surveys and European Social Surveys. I use this data set to estimate the effect of disasters on norm adherence in two ways: (i) investigating event-studies that compare individuals interviewed in the days before and after the same disaster; and (ii) examining variation in individuals’ past exposure to disasters across countries and cohorts while controlling for country-, cohort-, and life-cycle-specific factors. The event-studies demonstrate that disasters strengthen adherence to social norms by 11 percent. The analysis of cross-country variation shows that the effect is long-lasting, often for several decades. Consistent with a model in which social coordination is beneficial when disasters threaten the success of entire groups, the effect of disasters on norm adherence is more pronounced in low-income countries, where survival is less secure. The results suggest that past exposure to disasters partially explains within-group cohesion and, if groups have different norms, between-group divides.

From the Conclusion

The results shed light on three related issues. First, they provide a rationale for why some societies are more culturally diverse than others. A large literature demonstrates that the cultural differences we see today across societies are the result of an evolutionary process. The findings in this paper suggest that this evolutionary logic also applies to differences in within-country variability in these cultural traits across societies. When norm adherence is widespread, it restricts the scope of acceptable behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, and thereby fosters cultural homogeneity.  Second, the paper offers a novel explanation for why short-run adverse shocks such as conflict sometimes lead to greater cooperation within groups. By increasing adherence to local norms, such shocks promote prosocial behavior if local norms are prosocial. Third, the paper demonstrates that individuals who experience threats to their living standards cling more tightly to their community's norms, values, and beliefs, and become less tolerant of others who behave or think differently, even within relatively short periods.