How Durable are Social Norms?

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...migrants tend to make social trust assessments that mainly reflect conditions in the country where they now live...

Recent studies find that individuals' social norms, as evidenced by their opinions and behavior, as well as social trust, can be transmitted from one generation to the next within the same cultural setting. Many observers believe that this transmission process is based on parental socialization during childhood. However, there is also evidence that the current environment plays an important role in shaping an individual's social norms.

In How Durable are Social Norms? Immigrant Trust and Generosity in 132 Countries (NBER Working Paper No. 19855), authors John Helliwell, Shun Wang, and Jinwen Xu use data from large samples of migrant and non-migrant respondents to the Gallup World Poll to explore the links between immigration and social norms. They find that migrants tend to make social trust assessments that mainly reflect conditions in the country where they now live, but they also uncover a significant effect of their countries of origin. The latter effect, which is known as the "footprint effect," is one-third as important as the effect of local conditions. Once the footprint effect is accounted for, immigrants on average have social trust levels equal to the levels of those who were born in the country.

The authors also find that the altruistic behavior of migrants, as measured by the frequency of their donations in their new countries, is strongly determined by social norms in their new countries, while also retaining some effect of the levels of generosity found in their birth countries.

To show that the durability of social norms is not simply attributable to delays in learning about a new environment, the authors report a complete absence of footprint effects for immigrants' confidence in political institutions. When asked specific questions about the institutional features of their new countries, immigrants' answers reflect the characteristics of those institutions, with no carryover from the institutions in the countries where they were born.

Taken together, the authors' findings support the notion that social norms are deeply rooted in long-standing cultures, yet are nonetheless subject to adaptation when there are major changes in the surrounding circumstances and environment.

-- Les Picker