Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Strategic Behavior with Tight, Loose, and Polarized Norms

Dimant, E., Gelfand, M. J., Hochleitner, A., 
& Sonderegger, S. (2022).


Descriptive norms – the behavior of other individuals in one’s reference group – play a key role in shaping individual decisions. When characterizing the behavior of others, a standard approach in the literature is to focus on average behavior. In this paper, we argue both theoretically and empirically that not only averages, but the shape of the whole distribution of behavior can play a crucial role in how people react to descriptive norms. Using a representative sample of the U.S. population, we experimentally investigate how individuals react to strategic environments that are characterized by different distributions of behavior, focusing on the distinction between tight (i.e., characterized by low behavioral variance), loose (i.e., characterized by high behavioral variance), and polarized (i.e., characterized by u-shaped behavior) environments. We find that individuals indeed strongly respond to differences in the variance and shape of the descriptive norm they are facing: loose norms generate greater behavioral variance and polarization generates polarized responses. In polarized environments, most individuals prefer extreme actions that expose them to considerable strategic risk to intermediate actions that would minimize such risk. Importantly, we also find that, in polarized and loose environments, personal traits and values play a larger role in determining actual behavior. This provides important insights into how individuals navigate environments that contain strategic uncertainty.


In this study, we investigate how individuals respond to differences in the observed distribution of others’ behavior. In particular, we test how different distributions of cooperative behavior affect an individual’s own willingness to cooperate. We first develop a theoretical framework that is based on the assumption that individuals are conditional cooperators and interpret differences in observed distribution as a shift in strategic uncertainty. We then test our framework empirically in the context of a PGG. To do so, we measure behavior in the PGG both before and after participants receive information about the distribution from which a co-players contribution is drawn. We thereby vary both the mean (high/low) and the variance/shape (high variance/ low variance/ u-shaped) of the observed distribution.

Our results confirm previous research showing that information about average behavior has an important effect on subsequent decisions. Individuals contribute significantly more in high mean conditions than in low mean conditions. However, the mean is not the only important feature of the distribution. In line with our theoretical framework, we find that looser environments generate a larger variance in individual responses compared to tighter environments.  In other words, “tight breeds tight” and “loose breeds loose”. Moreover, we find that, when confronted with a polarized (U-shaped) distribution, participants’ responses are polarized as well. A possible interpretation of these results is that people have heterogeneous reactions to situations characterized by high strategic uncertainty, while they react rather similarly when strategic uncertainty is low. Finally, we find that personal values have a higher predictive power for contribution decisions in loose and polarized compared to tight environments. This suggests that an individual’s reaction to strategic uncertainty may be mediated by their personal values.  This in turn has practical implications for behavioral change interventions. For example, when intervening in contexts with loose or polarized empirical norms, it may be more fruitful to focus on personal values, whereas when intervening in contexts with tight empirical norms, it may be more fruitful to focus on the behaviors of others.

Overall, we show that when studying empirical norms it is crucial to not only consider the average behavior, but the whole distribution. Doing so provides substantial analytical richness that can form the basis for a better understanding of the different behavioral patterns observed across societies.