NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Predicting Social Tipping and Norm Change in Controlled Experiments

James Andreoni, Nikos Nikiforakis, Simon Siegenthaler

NBER Working Paper No. 27310
Issued in June 2020
NBER Program(s):Public Economics, Political Economy

The ability to predict when societies will replace one social norm for another can have significant implications for welfare, especially when norms are detrimental. A popular theory poses that the pressure to conform to social norms creates tipping thresholds which, once passed, propel societies toward an alternative state. Predicting when societies will reach a tipping threshold, however, has been a major challenge due to the lack of experimental data for evaluating competing models. We present evidence from a large-scale lab experiment designed to test the theoretical predictions of a threshold model for social tipping. In our setting, societal preferences change gradually, forcing individuals to weigh the benefit from deviating from the norm against the cost from not conforming to the behavior of others. We show that the model predicts accurately social tipping and norm change in 96% of experimental societies. Strikingly, when individuals determine the cost for non-conformity themselves, they set it too high, causing the persistence of detrimental norms. We also show that instigators of change tend to be more risk tolerant and to dislike conformity more. Our findings demonstrate the value of threshold models for understanding social tipping in a broad range of social settings and designing policies to promote welfare.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w27310

 
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