Book Review: Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms, by Cristina Bicchieri

September 7, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Alice Evans was raving about this book on twitter, so I scrounged a review copy and read it on holiday (that’s just how I roll). Verdict? A useful resource on an incredibly important topic (see my previous blogs), but sorry Alice, no cigar.

Why important? Because norms are the neglected heart of development and social change – how people see themselves and their neighbours, what is considered (un)natural etc has the dual quality of seeming constant (the rules by which we live), while in fact continually evolving. Think of attitudes to homosexuality, disability, gender, violence against children – all have changed massively over the last few decades, and we have only the thinnest understanding of why/how. Instead activists and aid agencies often prefer to focus on the short-term and the tangible – policies, spending commitments, laws, activities.

So it’s great that Bicchieri, a prof at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to shed some light, building on her work with UNICEF trying to change ‘bad norms’ on everything from breast-feeding to Female Genital Cutting (FGM has now become FGC – no idea why).

In diagnosis, Bicchieri painstakingly distinguishes between different phenomena that are often lumped together as ‘norms’ (see graphic). Disentangling preferences, expectations, norms, customs and conventions is hard work – not always helped by the academic prose. I know it’s unfair to quote in isolation, but here’s a section that I actually underlined as helpful: ‘Our commitment to these moral norms is independent of what we expect others to believe, do, or approve/disapprove of. Social norms instead are always (socially) conditional, in the sense that our preference for obeying them depends upon our expectations of collective compliance.’ Don’t know about you, but I really struggle with page after page of this kind of writing. Lot of nodding off and re-reading of paragraphs…..

But the distinctions do help. Take this on campaigns to encourage breast feeding that tried merely to raise awareness of the health benefits: ‘Such interventions were not accompanied by the understanding that the practice was supported by widely held social expectations. Even if we were to succeed in convincing a young mother of the benefits of immediate breastfeeding, would she dare incur the wrath of her mother-in-law, the scorn of other women, and the accusation that she was risking the life of her child?’ What people expect other people to think turns out to be key, and often neglected in attempts to shift norms and behaviours.

The measurement chapter works through some behavioural economics/nudge style experiments but then regretfully accepts that real life takes place outside the lab, and is a lot messier and harder to measure. All we can do there is present people with hypothetical scenarios to try and understand how norms could change – eg if your community stopped opposing X, would you be more likely to do it? One of the interesting practical implications of this chapter is that identifying contradictory norms can be a good entry point for changing behaviours – eg in Yemen Oxfam used social norms around protecting children’s health to undermine normative support for early marriage.

The chapter on changing norms argues that similar processes are required, whether you are creating, changing or trying to get people to completely abandon norms. There must be shared reasons for a change (new information, changes in personal beliefs, or a change in social expectations – what we think other people think). There are collective action problems that make it higher risk to be the first mover (who wants to be the first gay in the village?) – remedies include public pledging (‘I will only marry an uncut woman’) to change people’s ‘perceptions of perceptions’.

Norm change in practice happens through three main ways: a steady drip drip of information and first hand experience that existing norms need to change (eg seeing that breast-fed babies don’t die), a ‘conversion moment’ – critical juncture eg when everyone heads for Tahrir Square and the population loses the fear to speak out and a third, less useful ‘subtype model’ where people ringfence a norm change by saying ‘ah well, it may work for that group, but not for me’.

Looking at successful programmes, Bicchieri stresses the value of ‘appealing on an emotional level, eliciting strong emotions, like fear and disgust’ when, for example, trying to shift norms on open defecation. When (as in the case of open defecation), you need to get everyone to make the change for it to be effective, it helps if the group can also make a collective decision to sanction transgressions (one Indian village set up a cow jail and arrested the cows of offending defecators, which were only freed after a fine was paid and the offender publicly humiliated).

As the last paragraph shows, case studies are really helpful in landing some of the more abstract fancy footwork. Unfortunately, in this book they are rather cursory – a really chunky opening case study on eg equal marriage, foot binding, FGM or open defecation, would have really helped bring the ideas to life and give something for us less conceptual types to cling to.

The chapter on ‘tools for change’ was the most important, the shortest and the most disappointing. It set out four approaches – legal, economic, media and small-scale deliberation. Legal tends not to work for social norms (see anti-corruption laws around the world), but ‘if the law is to have any value at all, it needs to stick close to the norms’ – interesting caveat. The most enthusiastically endorsed vehicle for change at scale is…… soap operas. OK, the examples are great, covering issues like condom use, breast feeding and in a spectacular recent Indian soap, toilets. But they only work if you have the power and budget to commission TV series and I suspect that lots of them end up being worthy rubbish with terrible audience figures.

As with legal interventions, Bicchieri stresses that successful soaps need a ‘combination of recognisability and difference’ – if your characters are an unconvincing collage of politically correct positions, no-one will identify with them, but if they are flawed and true to life apart from the one issue you are trying to tackle, then you might get somewhere.

A couple of other useful insights for campaigners: Public messaging about failures and problems can actually make matters worse (because it makes it sound like everyone is doing it – tax evasion, beating their wives etc). What works is messaging about good stuff – how many people are paying taxes, recycling etc, especially among your neighbours. Monetary incentives can also backfire, because they shift the logic from moral to market (it’s OK to arrive late to pick up my kid, because now I just have to pay a fine).

At a more subterranean level, I wondered about the kind of person the book is both aimed at and talks about. It’s aimed at an ill-defined developmental ‘we’, Platonic Guardians at UNICEF or elsewhere in the system, charged with freeing misguided populations from their harmful practices – true in some cases (eg breastfeeding) but also problematic (eg when the Guardians are wrong or malign). What is missing is any real consideration of power, and the link between power, social and economic structures and norms. That surely shapes what can/can’t be done, especially when the shifts extend beyond the restricted UNICEF world of win-win interventions on breast feeding and the like. What’s also missing is the big historic shifts, eg why there’s growing support for gender equality around the world. This is a book for small scale tinkering not transformation.

Although it is never spelled out, the imaginary ‘typical person’ in this book lives in a community, whose primary relationships are face to face with family and neighbours. That certainly doesn’t describe my life, how about yours? Missing is fragmentation, and the way social-media-led communities are easing the path to norm change (good or bad).

It also comes across as excessively rationalist – people weighing up their behaviours based on their expectations about what their neighbours and ‘reference networks’ think. In Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, that’s all thinking slow, when actually, most people think fast most of the time, living with contradictions and confusions (I worry about climate change; I also take lots of planes – I just try not to think about it) rather than trying to nail everything down. And faith and religion, with their huge impact on norms, barely get a mention.

So, good topic, lots of food for thought, but in the end, a lot of blind spots and a rather frustrating book – any other recommendations for what to read on how norms change, and how to influence them?

Thanks to Alice Evans for comments on an earlier draft of this post

September 7, 2017
Duncan Green