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
Showing posts with label Social Norms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Social Norms. Show all posts

Friday, June 14, 2024

What does my group consider moral?: How social influence shapes moral expressions

del Rosario, K., Van Bavel, J. J., & West, T.
PsyArXiv (2024, May 8).


Although morality is often characterized as a set of stable values that are deeply held, we argue that moral expressions are highly malleable and sensitive to social norms. For instance, norms can either lead people to exaggerate their expressions of morality (such as on social media) or restrain them (such as in professional settings). In this paper, we discuss why moral expressions are subject to social influence by considering two goals that govern social influence: affiliation goals (the desire to affiliate with one’s group) and accuracy goals (the desire to be accurate in ambiguous situations). Different from other domains of social influence, we argue that moral expressions often satisfy both affiliation goals (“I want to fit in with the group”) and accuracy goals (“I want to do the right thing”). As such, the fundamental question governing moral expressions is: “what does my group consider moral?” We argue that this central consideration achieves both goals underlying social influence and drives moral expressions. We outline the ways in which social influence shapes moral expressions, from unconsciously copying others’ behavior to expressing outrage to gain status within the group. Finally, we describe when the same goals can result in different behaviors, highlighting how context-specific norms can encourage (or discourage) moral expressions. We explain how this framework will be helpful in understanding how identity, norms, and social contexts shape moral expressions.


Our review examines moral expressions through the lens of social influence, illustrating the critical role of the social environment in shaping moral expressions. Moral expressions serve a social purpose, such as affiliating with a group, and are influenced by various goals, including understanding the appropriate emotional response to moral issues and conforming to others' expressions to fit in. These influences become evident in different contexts, where norms either encourage exaggerated expressions, like on social media, or restraint, such as in professional settings. For this reason, different forms of influence can have vastly different implications. As such, the fundamental social question governing moral expressions for people in moral contexts is: “What does my group consider moral?” However, much of the morality literature does not account for the role of social influence in moral expressions. Thus, a social norms framework will be helpful in understanding how social contexts shape moral expression.

Here is a summary:

The research argues that moral expressions (outward displays of emotions related to right and wrong) are highly malleable and shaped by social norms and contexts, contrary to the view that morality reflects stable convictions. It draws from research on normative influence (conforming to gain social affiliation) and informational influence (seeking accuracy in ambiguous situations) to explain how moral expressions aim to satisfy both affiliation goals ("fitting in with the group") and accuracy goals ("doing the right thing").

The key points are:
  1. Moral expressions vary across contexts because people look to their social groups to determine what is considered moral behavior.
  2. Affiliation goals (fitting in) and accuracy goals (being correct) are intertwined for moral expressions, unlike in other domains where they are distinct.
  3. Social influence shapes moral expressions in various ways, from unconscious mimicry to outrage expressions for gaining group status.
  4. Context-specific norms can encourage or discourage moral expressions by prioritizing affiliation over accuracy goals, or vice versa.
  5. The motivation to be seen as moral contributes to the malleability of moral expressions across social contexts.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

MAGA’s Violent Threats Are Warping Life in America

David French
New York Times - Opinion
Originally published 18 Feb 24

Amid the constant drumbeat of sensational news stories — the scandals, the legal rulings, the wild political gambits — it’s sometimes easy to overlook the deeper trends that are shaping American life. For example, are you aware how much the constant threat of violence, principally from MAGA sources, is now warping American politics? If you wonder why so few people in red America seem to stand up directly against the MAGA movement, are you aware of the price they might pay if they did?

Late last month, I listened to a fascinating NPR interview with the journalists Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman regarding their new book, “Find Me the Votes,” about Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. They report that Georgia prosecutor Fani Willis had trouble finding lawyers willing to help prosecute her case against Trump. Even a former Georgia governor turned her down, saying, “Hypothetically speaking, do you want to have a bodyguard follow you around for the rest of your life?”

He wasn’t exaggerating. Willis received an assassination threat so specific that one evening she had to leave her office incognito while a body double wearing a bulletproof vest courageously pretended to be her and offered a target for any possible incoming fire.

Here is my summary of the article:

David French discusses the pervasive threat of violence, particularly from MAGA sources, and its impact on American politics. The author highlights instances where individuals faced intimidation and threats for opposing the MAGA movement, such as a Georgia prosecutor receiving an assassination threat and judges being swatted. The article also mentions the significant increase in threats against members of Congress since Trump took office, with Capitol Police opening over 8,000 threat assessments in a year. The piece sheds light on the chilling effect these threats have on individuals like Mitt Romney, who spends $5,000 per day on security, and lawmakers who fear for their families' safety. The overall narrative underscores how these violent threats are shaping American life and politics

Sunday, April 30, 2023

The secrets of cooperation

Bob Holmes
Originally published 29 MAR 23

Here are two excerpts:

Human cooperation takes some explaining — after all, people who act cooperatively should be vulnerable to exploitation by others. Yet in societies around the world, people cooperate to their mutual benefit. Scientists are making headway in understanding the conditions that foster cooperation, research that seems essential as an interconnected world grapples with climate change, partisan politics and more — problems that can be addressed only through large-scale cooperation.

Behavioral scientists’ formal definition of cooperation involves paying a personal cost (for example, contributing to charity) to gain a collective benefit (a social safety net). But freeloaders enjoy the same benefit without paying the cost, so all else being equal, freeloading should be an individual’s best choice — and, therefore, we should all be freeloaders eventually.

Many millennia of evolution acting on both our genes and our cultural practices have equipped people with ways of getting past that obstacle, says Muthukrishna, who coauthored a look at the evolution of cooperation in the 2021 Annual Review of Psychology. This cultural-genetic coevolution stacked the deck in human society so that cooperation became the smart move rather than a sucker’s choice. Over thousands of years, that has allowed us to live in villages, towns and cities; work together to build farms, railroads and other communal projects; and develop educational systems and governments.

Evolution has enabled all this by shaping us to value the unwritten rules of society, to feel outrage when someone else breaks those rules and, crucially, to care what others think about us.

“Over the long haul, human psychology has been modified so that we’re able to feel emotions that make us identify with the goals of social groups,” says Rob Boyd, an evolutionary anthropologist at the Institute for Human Origins at Arizona State University.


Reputation is more powerful than financial incentives in encouraging cooperation

Almost a decade ago, Yoeli and his colleagues trawled through the published literature to see what worked and what didn’t at encouraging prosocial behavior. Financial incentives such as contribution-matching or cash, or rewards for participating, such as offering T-shirts for blood donors, sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, they found. In contrast, reputational rewards — making individuals’ cooperative behavior public — consistently boosted participation. The result has held up in the years since. “If anything, the results are stronger,” says Yoeli.

Financial rewards will work if you pay people enough, Yoeli notes — but the cost of such incentives could be prohibitive. One study of 782 German residents, for example, surveyed whether paying people to receive a Covid vaccine would increase vaccine uptake. It did, but researchers found that boosting vaccination rates significantly would have required a payment of at least 3,250 euros — a dauntingly steep price.

And payoffs can actually diminish the reputational rewards people could otherwise gain for cooperative behavior, because others may be unsure whether the person was acting out of altruism or just doing it for the money. “Financial rewards kind of muddy the water about people’s motivations,” says Yoeli. “That undermines any reputational benefit from doing the deed.”

Friday, October 21, 2022

“Everybody’s doing it”: Exploring the consequences of intergroup contact norms

Boss, H., Buliga, E., & MacInnis, C. C. (2022). 
Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.


Newcomers to a country can strongly benefit from having positive intergroup contact with host country residents. Often, however, such contact does not occur. Norms surrounding intergroup contact between newcomers and host country residents were explored over three studies. Correlational relationships among positive perceived contact norms, positive attitudes, and behavioural intentions supporting contact were demonstrated over multiple studies. Further, an experimental manipulation indicating higher (vs. lower and control) contact between host country residents and newcomers predicted behavioural intentions toward future intergroup contact through heightened intergroup contact norms and more positive attitudes toward newcomers. Implications of using norms as a means to impact intergroup relations are discussed.

From General Discussion

Across studies, we demonstrated that perceived norms surrounding contact between Canadians and newcomers can influence attitudes toward newcomers, and one’s willingness to engage in contact with them. These findings are consistent with the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1991), such that perceived ingroup norms and attitudes are important predictors of behavioural intentions. Our findings were also consistent with group norms theory (Sherif & Sherif, 1953), such that perceived norms were strong predictors of attitudes toward newcomers. A manipulation involving reading a single newspaper article had clear implications for the perceived norms of participants in Studies 2–3. This has implications for discussions of newcomers in the media. For example, newcomer-serving organizations seeking to attract volunteers should be careful with how requests are framed. Projecting perceptions of ingroup disinterest in or disengagement from outgroups may damage attitudes and contact intentions among individuals who might otherwise be desired volunteers. As such, it may be ideal for newcomer-serving agencies to focus on the contact that is occurring rather than on the lack of contact when seeking to attract new volunteers.


We provide evidence that perceived social norms surrounding contact between ingroup and outgroup members can play an important role in attitudes toward outgroups and intentions to interact with these individuals in the future. Our findings are specific to the context of contact between Canadians and newcomers to Canada but may generalize to similar contexts. Our findings suggest that norm-based interventions can be a means to promote positive intergroup relations. Promoting positive norms about intergroup contact to the dominant group may be a valuable tool for increasing contact with newcomers, an important outcome given that intergroup contact can facilitate positive integration for new immigrants and refugees.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Social norms and dishonesty across societies

Aycinena, D., et al.
PNAS, 119 (31), 2022.


Social norms have long been recognized as an important factor in curtailing antisocial behavior, and stricter prosocial norms are commonly associated with increased prosocial behavior. In this study, we provide evidence that very strict prosocial norms can have a perverse negative relationship with prosocial behavior. In laboratory experiments conducted in 10 countries across 5 continents, we measured the level of honest behavior and elicited injunctive norms of honesty. We find that individuals who hold very strict norms (i.e., those who perceive a small lie to be as socially unacceptable as a large lie) are more likely to lie to the maximal extent possible. This finding is consistent with a simple behavioral rationale. If the perceived norm does not differentiate between the severity of a lie, lying to the full extent is optimal for a norm violator since it maximizes the financial gain, while the perceived costs of the norm violation are unchanged. We show that the relation between very strict prosocial norms and high levels of rule violations generalizes to civic norms related to common moral dilemmas, such as tax evasion, cheating on government benefits, and fare dodging on public transportation. Those with very strict attitudes toward civic norms are more likely to lie to the maximal extent possible. A similar relation holds across countries. Countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict attitudes toward civic norms have a higher society-level prevalence of rule violations.


Much of the research in the experimental and behavioral sciences finds that stronger prosocial norms lead to higher levels of prosocial behavior. Here, we show that very strict prosocial norms are negatively correlated with prosocial behavior. Using laboratory experiments on honesty, we demonstrate that individuals who hold very strict norms of honesty are more likely to lie to the maximal extent. Further, countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict civic norms have proportionally more societal-level rule violations. We show that our findings are consistent with a simple behavioral rationale. If perceived norms are so strict that they do not differentiate between small and large violations, then, conditional on a violation occurring, a large violation is individually optimal.

In essence, very strict social norms can backfire.  People can lie to the fullest extent with similar costs to minimal lying.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Virtue Discounting: Observers Infer that Publicly Virtuous Actors Have Less Principled Motivations

Kraft-Todd, G., Kleiman-Weiner, M., 
& Young, L. (2022, May 27). 


Behaving virtuously in public presents a paradox: only by doing so can people demonstrate their virtue and also influence others through their example, yet observers may derogate actors’ behavior as mere “virtue signaling.” We introduce the term virtue discounting to refer broadly to the reasons that people devalue actors’ virtue, bringing together empirical findings across diverse literatures as well as theories explaining virtuous behavior. We investigate the observability of actors’ behavior as one reason for virtue discounting, and its mechanism via motivational inferences using the comparison of generosity and impartiality as a case study among virtues. Across 14 studies (7 preregistered, total N=9,360), we show that publicly virtuous actors are perceived as less morally good than privately virtuous actors, and that this effect is stronger for generosity compared to impartiality (i.e. differential virtue discounting). An exploratory factor analysis suggests that three types of motives—principled, reputation-signaling, and norm-signaling—affect virtue discounting. Using structural equation modeling, we show that the effect of observability on ratings of actors’ moral goodness is largely explained by inferences that actors have less principled motivations. Further, we provide experimental evidence that observers’ motivational inferences mechanistically contribute to virtue discounting. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of our findings, as well as future directions for research on the social perception of virtue.

General Discussion

Across three analyses martialing data from 14 experiments (seven preregistered, total N=9,360), we provide robust evidence of virtue discounting. In brief, we show that the observability of actors’ behavior is a reason that people devalue actors’ virtue, and that this effect can be explained by observers’ inferences about actors’ motivations. In Analysis 1—which includes a meta-analysis of all experiments we ran—we show that observability causes virtue discounting, and that this effect is larger in the context of generosity compared to impartiality. In Analysis 2, we provide suggestive evidence that participants’ motivational inferences mediate a large portion (72.6%) of the effect of observability on their ratings of actors’ moral goodness. In Analysis 3, we experimentally show that when we stipulate actors’ motivation, observability loses its significant effect on participants’ judgments of actors’ moral goodness.  This gives further evidence for   the hypothesis that observers’ inferences about actors’ motivations are a mechanism for the way that the observability of actions impacts virtue discounting.We now consider the contributions of our findings to the empirical literature, how these findings interact with our theoretical account, and the limitations of the present investigation (discussing promising directions for future research throughout). Finally, we conclude with practical implications for effective prosocial advocacy.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Distinct neurocomputational mechanisms support informational and socially normative conformity

Mahmoodi A, Nili H, et al.
(2022) PLoS Biol 20(3): e3001565. 


A change of mind in response to social influence could be driven by informational conformity to increase accuracy, or by normative conformity to comply with social norms such as reciprocity. Disentangling the behavioural, cognitive, and neurobiological underpinnings of informational and normative conformity have proven elusive. Here, participants underwent fMRI while performing a perceptual task that involved both advice-taking and advice-giving to human and computer partners. The concurrent inclusion of 2 different social roles and 2 different social partners revealed distinct behavioural and neural markers for informational and normative conformity. Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) BOLD response tracked informational conformity towards both human and computer but tracked normative conformity only when interacting with humans. A network of brain areas (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and temporoparietal junction (TPJ)) that tracked normative conformity increased their functional coupling with the dACC when interacting with humans. These findings enable differentiating the neural mechanisms by which different types of conformity shape social changes of mind.


A key feature of adaptive behavioural control is our ability to change our mind as new evidence comes to light. Previous research has identified dACC as a neural substrate for changes of mind in both nonsocial situations, such as when receiving additional evidence pertaining to a previously made decision, and social situations, such as when weighing up one’s own decision against the recommendation of an advisor. However, unlike the nonsocial case, the role of dACC in social changes of mind can be driven by different, and often competing, factors that are specific to the social nature of the interaction. In particular, a social change of mind may be driven by a motivation to be correct, i.e., informational influence. Alternatively, a social change of mind may be driven by reasons unrelated to accuracy—such as social acceptance—a process called normative influence. To date, studies on the neural basis of social changes of mind have not disentangled these processes. It has therefore been unclear how the brain tracks and combines informational and normative factors.

Here, we leveraged a recently developed experimental framework that separates humans’ trial-by-trial conformity into informational and normative components to unpack the neural basis of social changes of mind. On each trial, participants first made a perceptual estimate and reported their confidence in it. In support of our task rationale, we found that, while participants’ changes of mind were affected by confidence (i.e., informational) in both human and computer settings, they were only affected by the need to reciprocate influence (i.e., normative) specifically in the human–human setting. It should be noted that participants’ perception of their partners’ accuracy is also an important factor in social change of mind (we tend to change our mind towards the more accurate participants). 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Social proximity and the erosion of norm compliance

Bicchieri, C., Dimant, E., et al.
Games and Economic Behavior
Volume 132, March 2022, Pages 59-72


We study how compliance with norms of pro-social behavior is influenced by peers' compliance in a dynamic and non-strategic experimental setting. We show that social proximity among peers is a crucial determinant of the effect. Without social proximity, norm compliance erodes swiftly because participants only conform to observed norm violations while ignoring norm compliance. With social proximity, participants conform to both types of observed behaviors, thus halting the erosion of compliance. Our findings stress the importance of the broader social context for norm compliance and show that, even in the absence of social sanctions, norm compliance can be sustained in repeated interactions, provided there is group identification, as is the case in many natural and online environments.

From the Discussion and conclusion

Social norms are a fundamental component of social and economic life. Therefore, it is important to study conditions under which norm compliance occurs. In this paper, we focused on how observing others' behavior influences individual norm compliance. To investigate this, we designed a non-strategic Take-or-Give (ToG) donation game where people could give to charity, take from it, or abstain from changing the initial allocation between the self and the charity. Using a series of norm-elicitation experiments, we established that most people think taking from the charity is socially inappropriate, whereas abstaining or giving to the charity is appropriate. We then examined the effect of letting individuals observe each other's behavior in a repeated version of the ToG game. Our behavioral results reveal a notable asymmetry in the effect of observing peer behavior: observing other anonymous individuals violating the norm (taking from charity) increased the likelihood that the observers transgress as well. Observing that others donate to charity, however, did not increase donations to the charity. In sum, observing socially inappropriate behavior by anonymous people eroded norm compliance in a way that was not compensated by observing socially appropriate behavior. Our additional experiments show that this partly occurs because observing inappropriate behavior erodes the social norm of giving.

While this asymmetry in reactions paints a bleak picture for norm compliance when other anonymous people can be observed, in most real-world interactions individuals can observe their social proximity to the people they interact with. Assessing similarities with others may bring forth a mechanism of group identification that may promote symmetrical behavioral conformity within the group. The reason for this phenomenon is that the individual may feel that deviations from group behavior, whether positive or negative, signal a lack of commitment to the group. Individuals fear that this may trigger disapproval by other group members. Thus, they will be more vigilant — and responsive — to both examples of socially inappropriate and socially appropriate behavior. 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

'Moral molecules’ – a new theory of what goodness is made of

Oliver Scott Curry and others
Originally posted 1 NOV 21

Here are two excerpts:

Research is converging on the idea that morality is a collection of rules for promoting cooperation – rules that help us work together, get along, keep the peace and promote the common good. The basic idea is that humans are social animals who have lived together in groups for millions of years. During this time, we have been surrounded by opportunities for cooperation – for mutually beneficial social interaction – and we have evolved and invented a range of ways of unlocking these benefits. These cooperative strategies come in different shapes and sizes: instincts, intuitions, inventions, institutions. Together, they motivate our cooperative behaviour and provide the criteria by which we evaluate the behaviour of others. And it is these cooperative strategies that philosophers and others have called ‘morality’.

This theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ relies on the mathematical analysis of cooperation provided by game theory – the branch of maths that is used to describe situations in which the outcome of one’s decisions depends on the decisions made by others. Game theory distinguishes between competitive ‘zero-sum’ interactions or ‘games’, where one player’s gain is another’s loss, and cooperative ‘nonzero-sum’ games, win-win situations in which both players benefit. What’s more, game theory tells us that there is not just one type of nonzero-sum game; there are many, with many different cooperative strategies for playing them. At least seven different types of cooperation have been identified so far, and each one explains a different type of morality.


Hence, seven types of cooperation explain seven types of morality: love, loyalty, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fairness and property rights. And so, according to this theory, it is morally good to: 1) love your family; 2) be loyal to your group; 3) return favours; 4) be heroic; 5) defer to superiors; 6) be fair; and 7) respect property. (And it is morally bad to: 1) neglect your family; 2) betray your group; 3) cheat; 4) be a coward; 5) disrespect authority; 6) be unfair; or 7) steal.) These morals are evolutionarily ancient, genetically distinct, psychologically discrete and cross-culturally universal.

The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ explains, from first principles, many of the morals on those old lists. Some of the morals correspond to one of the basic types of cooperation (as in the case of courage), while others correspond to component parts of a basic type (as in the case of gratitude, which is a component of reciprocity).

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The psychological foundations of reputation-based cooperation

Manrique, H., et al. (2021, June 2).


Humans care about having a positive reputation, which may prompt them to help in scenarios where the return benefits are not obvious. Various game-theoretical models support the hypothesis that concern for reputation may stabilize cooperation beyond kin, pairs or small groups. However, such models are not explicit about the underlying psychological mechanisms that support reputation-based cooperation. These models therefore cannot account for the apparent rarity of reputation-based cooperation in other species. Here we identify the cognitive mechanisms that may support reputation-based cooperation in the absence of language. We argue that a large working memory enhances the ability to delay gratification, to understand others' mental states (which allows for perspective-taking and attribution of intentions), and to create and follow norms, which are key building blocks for increasingly complex reputation-based cooperation. We review the existing evidence for the appearance of these processes during human ontogeny as well as their presence in non-human apes and other vertebrates. Based on this review, we predict that most non-human species are cognitively constrained to show only simple forms of reputation-based cooperation.


We have presented  four basic psychological building blocks that we consider important facilitators for complex reputation-based cooperation: working memory, delay of gratification, theory of mind, and social norms. Working memory allows for parallel processing of diverse information, to  properly  assess  others’ actions and update their  reputation  scores. Delay of gratification is useful for many types of cooperation,  but may  be particularly relevant for reputation-based cooperation where the returns come from a future interaction with an observer rather than an immediate reciprocation by one’s current partner. Theory of mind makes it easier to  properly  assess others’ actions, and  reduces the  risk that spreading  errors will undermine cooperation. Finally, norms support theory of mind by giving individuals a benchmark of what is right or wrong.  The more developed that each of these building blocks is, the more complex the interaction structure can become. We are aware that by picking these four socio-cognitive mechanisms we leave out other processes that might be involved, e.g. long-term memory, yet we think the ones we picked are more critical and better allow for comparison across species.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Revisiting the Social Origins of Human Morality: A Constructivist Perspective on the Nature of Moral Sense-Making

Segovia-Cuéllar, A. 
Topoi (2021). 


A recent turn in the cognitive sciences has deepened the attention on embodied and situated dynamics for explaining different cognitive processes such as perception, emotion, and social cognition. This has fostered an extensive interest in the social and ‘intersubjective’ nature of moral behavior, especially from the perspective of enactivism. In this paper, I argue that embodied and situated perspectives, enactivism in particular, nonetheless require further improvements with regards to their analysis of the social nature of human morality. In brief, enactivist proposals still do not define what features of the social-relational context, or which kind of processes within social interactions, make an evaluation or action morally relevant or distinctive from other types of social normativity. As an alternative to this proclivity, and seeking to complement the enactive perspective, I present a definition of the process of moral sense-making and offer an empirically-based ethical distinction between different domains of social knowledge in moral development. For doing so, I take insights from the constructivist tradition in moral psychology. My objective is not to radically oppose embodied and enactive alternatives but to expand the horizon of their conceptual and empirical contributions to morality research.

From the Conclusions

To sum up, for humans to think morally in social environments it is necessary to develop a capacity to recognize morally relevant scenarios, to identify moral transgressions, to feel concerned about morally divergent issues, and to make judgments and decisions with morally relevant consequences. Our moral life involves the flexible application of moral principles since concerns about welfare, justice, and rights are sensitive and contingent on social and contextual factors. Moral motivation and reasoning are situated and embedded phenomena, and the result of a very complex developmental process.

In this paper, I have argued that embodied perspectives, enactivism included, face important challenges that result from their analysis of the social origins of human morality. My main objective has been to expand the horizon of conceptual, empirical, and descriptive implications that they need to address in the construction of a coherent ethical perspective. I have done so by exposing a constructivist approach to the social origins of human morality, taking insights from the cognitive-evolutionary tradition in moral psychology. This alternative radically eschews dichotomies to explain human moral behavior. Moreover, based on the constructivist definition of the moral domain of social knowledge, I have offered a basic notion of moral sense-making and I have called attention to the relevance of distinguishing what makes the development of moral norms different from the development of other domains of social normativity.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A new framework for the psychology of norms

Westra, E., & Andrews, K. (2021, July 9).


Social Norms – rules that dictate which behaviors are appropriate, permissible, or obligatory in different situations for members of a given community – permeate all aspects of human life. Many researchers have sought to explain the ubiquity of social norms in human life in terms of the psychological mechanisms underlying their acquisition, conformity, and enforcement. Existing theories of the psychology of social norms appeal to a variety of constructs, from prediction-error minimization, to reinforcement learning, to shared intentionality, to evolved psychological adaptations. However, most of these accounts share what we call the psychological unity assumption, which holds that there is something psychologically distinctive about social norms, and that social norm adherence is driven by a single system or process. We argue that this assumption is mistaken. In this paper, we propose a methodological and conceptual framework for the cognitive science of social norms that we call normative pluralism. According to this framework, we should treat norms first and foremost as a community-level pattern of social behavior that might be realized by a variety of different cognitive, motivational, and ecological mechanisms. Norm psychologists should not presuppose that social norms are underpinned by a unified set of processes, nor that there is anything particularly distinctive about normative cognition as such. We argue that this pluralistic approach offers a methodologically sound point of departure for a fruitful and rigorous science of norms.


The central thesis of this paper –what we’ve called normative pluralism–is that we should not take the psychological unity of social norms for granted.Social norms might be underpinned by a domain-specific norm system or by a single type of cognitive process, but they might also be the product of many different processes. In our methodological proposal, we outlined a novel, non-psychological conception of social norms –what we’ve called normative regularities –and defined the core components of a psychology of norms in light of this construct. In our empirical proposal, we argued that thus defined, social norms emerge from a heterogeneous set of cognitive, affective, and ecological mechanisms.

Thinking about social norms in this way will undoubtedly make the cognitive science of norms more complex and messy. If we are correct, however, then this will simply be a reflection of the complexity and messiness of social norms themselves. Taking a pluralistic approach to social norms allows us to explore the potential variability inherent to norm-governed behavior, which can help us to better understand how social norms shape our lives, and how they manifest themselves throughout the natural world.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Morally Motivated Networked Harassment as Normative Reinforcement

Marwick, A. E. (2021). 
Social Media + Society. 


While online harassment is recognized as a significant problem, most scholarship focuses on descriptions of harassment and its effects. We lack explanations of why people engage in online harassment beyond simple bias or dislike. This article puts forth an explanatory model where networked harassment on social media functions as a mechanism to enforce social order. Drawing from examples of networked harassment taken from qualitative interviews with people who have experienced harassment (n = 28) and Trust & Safety workers at social platforms (n = 9), the article builds on Brady, Crockett, and Bavel’s model of moral contagion to explore how moral outrage is used to justify networked harassment on social media. In morally motivated networked harassment, a member of a social network or online community accuses a target of violating their network’s norms, triggering moral outrage. Network members send harassing messages to the target, reinforcing their adherence to the norm and signaling network membership. Frequently, harassment results in the accused self-censoring and thus regulates speech on social media. Neither platforms nor legal regulations protect against this form of harassment. This model explains why people participate in networked harassment and suggests possible interventions to decrease its prevalence.

From the Conclusion

Ultimately, conceptualizing harassment as morally motivated and understanding it as a technique of norm reinforcement explains why people participate in it, a necessary step to decreasing it. This model may open creative solutions to harassment and content moderation. MMNH also recognizes that harassment, while more endemic to minorized communities, may be experienced by people from a wide variety of identities and political commitments, suggesting many possibilities for future research. Current technical and legal models of harassment do not protect against networked harassment; by providing a new model, I hope to contribute to lessening its prevalence.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

How social learning amplifies moral outrage expression in online social networks

Brady, W. J., McLoughlin, K. L., et al.
(2021, January 19).


Moral outrage shapes fundamental aspects of human social life and is now widespread in online social networks. Here, we show how social learning processes amplify online moral outrage expressions over time. In two pre-registered observational studies of Twitter (7,331 users and 12.7 million total tweets) and two pre-registered behavioral experiments (N = 240), we find that positive social feedback for outrage expressions increases the likelihood of future outrage expressions, consistent with principles of reinforcement learning. We also find that outrage expressions are sensitive to expressive norms in users’ social networks, over and above users’ own preferences, suggesting that norm learning processes guide online outrage expressions. Moreover, expressive norms moderate social reinforcement of outrage: in ideologically extreme networks, where outrage expression is more common, users are less sensitive to social feedback when deciding whether to express outrage. Our findings highlight how platform design interacts with human learning mechanisms to impact moral discourse in digital public spaces.

From the Conclusion

At first blush, documenting the role of reinforcement learning in online outrage expressions may seem trivial. Of course, we should expect that a fundamental principle of human behavior, extensively observed in offline settings, will similarly describe behavior in online settings. However, reinforcement learning of moral behaviors online, combined with the design of social media platforms, may have especially important social implications. Social media newsfeed algorithms can directly impact how much social feedback a given post receives by determining how many other users are exposed to that post. Because we show here that social feedback impacts users’ outrage expressions over time, this suggests newsfeed algorithms can influence users’ moral behaviors by exploiting their natural tendencies for reinforcement learning.  In this way, reinforcement learning on social media differs from reinforcement learning in other environments because crucial inputs to the learning process are shaped by corporate interests. Even if platform designers do not intend to amplify moral outrage, design choices aimed at satisfying other goals --such as profit maximization via user engagement --can indirectly impact moral behavior because outrage-provoking content draws high engagement. Given that moral outrage plays a critical role in collective action and social change, our data suggest that platform designers have the ability to influence the success or failure of social and political movements, as well as informational campaigns designed to influence users’ moral and political attitudes. Future research is required to understand whether users are aware of this, and whether making such knowledge salient can impact their online behavior.

People are more likely to express online "moral outrage" if they have either been rewarded for it in the past or it's common in their own social network.  They are even willing to express far more moral outrage than they genuinely feel in order to fit in.

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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Ashoka’s moral empire

Sam Haselby
Originally posted 2 July 20

Here is an excerpt:

At the heart of Ashoka’s ethical project is a concern to bring other beings and their possibilities into view. Consider different ways in which living beings might be excluded from our regard. For example, it is only when we see animals as entirely outside of our moral and political community that it’s possible to see them as meat. In the edicts, we find a concern with how the incarcerated, for greater or lesser periods of time, can also fall out of our consideration as fellow members of our moral community. Housed out of sight, we don’t see them, just as in a metaphorical sense we fail to see them when we treat them as less than us.

As an antidote, Ashoka encouraged his bureaucrats to develop a moral responsiveness with respect to the incarcerated. He says that if his ministers think ‘This one has a family to support,’ or ‘This one has been bewitched,’ or ‘This one is old,’ then they will see them anew, and can work to rehabilitate and reintegrate such a reconsidered prisoner in society. The challenge, Ashoka suggests, begins in our imagination: we must learn to see them entire. In fact, in the case of prisoners, refugees from war, internally displaced peoples, and animals – vulnerable beings, all – Ashoka recommends an imaginative experiment: to see them as individuals who maintain and value relationships with others of their kind, if not with us.

And that is key. The logic of Ashoka’s proscriptions on hunting, fishing and cruelty in animal husbandry in his fifth-pillar inscription can show us why. There, Ashoka suggests that living beings require a secure place in which to thrive, and that different types of places suit different types of beings (such as forests, rivers, or even husks for small-scaled life). He implies that all living beings exhibit different kinds of vulnerabilities and opportunities at various stages of life or at different times of the year (as when fish spawn only in certain lunar months, or sows are in milk). Living beings have patterns of dependency without which they would not be able to survive. By virtue of being a necessity for the flourishing of life, each context, pattern or stage of dependency acquires a moral status.

The info is here.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Most Americans don’t believe they need God to be good: poll

Leonardo Blair
Originally posted 22 July 20

Here is an excerpt:

While 70% of Americans still believe that religion is either “somewhat important” or “very important” in their lives, more than half (54%) of Americans said they believe God is “not necessary to be moral or have good values.”

Meanwhile, 44% of American respondents said they believe God is necessary to “be moral and have good values.”

Respondents on the ideological right were found to be significantly more likely to say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person and have good values compared to those on the political left in 15 of the 34 countries surveyed.

The largest gap between the ideological right and left exists in the United States.

While only 24% of American respondents who identified themselves as leaning more to the left politically said it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values, 37% of centrists agreed.

But when it comes to respondents who lean to the right politically, more than twice the percentage of those on the left (63%) agreed that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.

The info is here.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Social norms and cultural diversity in the development of third-party punishment

B. R. House and others
Proceedings of The Royal Society
Biological Sciences, 28720192794 (2020)


Human cooperation is probably supported by our tendency to punish selfishness in others. Social norms play an important role in motivating third-party punishment (TPP), and also in explaining societal differences in prosocial behaviour. However, there has been little work directly linking social norms to the development of TPP across societies. In this study, we explored the impact of normative information on the development of TPP in 603 children aged 4–14, across six diverse societies. Children began to perform TPP during middle childhood, and the developmental trajectories of this behaviour were similar across societies. We also found that social norms began to influence the likelihood of performing TPP during middle childhood in some of these societies. Norms specifying the punishment of selfishness were generally more influential than norms specifying the punishment of prosocial behaviour. These findings support the view that TPP of selfishness is important in all societies, and its development is shaped by a shared psychology for responding to normative information. Yet, the results also highlight the important role that children's prior knowledge of local norms may play in explaining societal variation in the development of both TPP and prosociality.

From the Conclusion and Discussion Section

Children's bias towards punishing selfish third parties increased during middle childhood, and this developmental pattern is similar across societies. Middle childhood is also when children across diverse societies become more prosocial and more averse to advantageous inequity. This raises the possibility that prosociality, advantageous inequity aversion and TPP may be developmentally coupled. In each of these cases, individuals incur personal costs to produce fairer outcomes for others. One explanation for this is that children become more responsive to social norms during middle childhood, leading them to become more likely to conform to social norms. This is consistent with our finding that norm primes begin to shape behaviour during middle childhood (although TPP norm primes were not effective in all societies).

The research is here.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Motivated misremembering of selfish decisions

Carlson, R.W., Maréchal, M.A., Oud, B. et al.
Nature Communications 11, 2100 (2020).


People often prioritize their own interests, but also like to see themselves as moral. How do individuals resolve this tension? One way to both pursue personal gain and preserve a moral self-image is to misremember the extent of one’s selfishness. Here, we test this possibility. Across five experiments (N = 3190), we find that people tend to recall being more generous in the past than they actually were, even when they are incentivized to recall their decisions accurately. Crucially, this motivated misremembering effect occurs chiefly for individuals whose choices violate their own fairness standards, irrespective of how high or low those standards are. Moreover, this effect disappears under conditions where people no longer perceive themselves as responsible for their fairness violations. Together, these findings suggest that when people’s actions fall short of their personal standards, they may misremember the extent of their selfishness, thereby potentially warding off threats to their moral self-image.

From the Discussion

Specifically, these findings suggest that those who violate (as opposed to uphold) their personal standards misremember the extent of their selfishness. Moreover, they highlight the key motivational role of perceived responsibility for norm violations—consistent with classic accounts from social psychology, and recent evidence from experimental economics. However, since we focused specifically on those who reported no responsibility, it is also conceivable that other factors might have differed between the participants who felt responsible and those who did not.

We interpret these results as evidence of motivated memory distortion, however, an alternative account would hold that these individuals were aware of their true level of generosity at recall, yet were willing to pay a cost to claim having been more generous. While this account is not inconsistent with prior work, it should be less likely in a context which is anonymous, involves no future interaction with any partners, and requires memories to be verified by an experimenter. Accordingly, we found little to no effect of trait social desirability on peoples’ reported memories. Together, these points suggest that people were actually misremembering their choices, rather than consciously lying about them.

The research is here.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Naïve Normativity: The Social Foundation of Moral Cognition

Kristin Andrews
Journal of the American Philosophical Association
Volume 6, Issue 1
January 2020 , pp. 36-56


To answer tantalizing questions such as whether animals are moral or how morality evolved, I propose starting with a somewhat less fraught question: do animals have normative cognition? Recent psychological research suggests that normative thinking, or ought-thought, begins early in human development. Recent philosophical research suggests that folk psychology is grounded in normative thought. Recent primatology research finds evidence of sophisticated cultural and social learning capacities in great apes. Drawing on these three literatures, I argue that the human variety of social cognition and moral cognition encompass the same cognitive capacities and that the nonhuman great apes may also be normative beings. To make this argument, I develop an account of animal social norms that shares key properties with Cristina Bicchieri's account of social norms but which lowers the cognitive requirements for having a social norm. I propose a set of four early developing prerequisites implicated in social cognition that make up what I call naïve normativity: the ability to identify agents, sensitivity to in-group/out-group differences, the capacity for social learning of group traditions, and responsiveness to appropriateness. I review the ape cognition literature and present preliminary empirical evidence supporting the existence of social norms and naïve normativity in great apes. While there is more empirical work to be done, I hope to have offered a framework for studying normativity in other species, and I conclude that we should be open to the possibility that normative cognition is yet another ancient cognitive endowment that is not human-unique.

The info is here.