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A Sunday evening bus queue in San José, Costa Rica.
Photo: O'Dea, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

How social norms change

Research project
Active research
Project owner
Department of Political Science

Short description

This project brings together insights from policy programs, behavioural economics, and theory to develop a systematic theory of how social norms change. Thereby, the project provides policy makers with a tool box for strengthening or changing social norms.


This project is about how social norms change – and can be made to change. Understanding how social norms change and how we might change them is important because such norms have great impact on our welfare. They influence almost all aspects of our social interactions, dictating things as disparate as if and how we queue to get on public transport, what counts as a bribe, whether one ought to be impartial when holding public office, how we greet each other, what demands can be made in the name of family or friendship, what should be done if you are insulted (and what counts as an insult), and how we achieve cooperation in the face of partially conflicting interests.


Social norms can have very positive effects, in particular when they allow us to find cooperative solutions to Prisoners’ Dilemma type of situations, or enable efficient coordination. For example, social norms can help us solve environmental problems by restricting littering and excessive use of water in droughts and by preventing overuse of communal resources. They can help us make social interactions smoother, by dictating that we wait for our turn, indicate how we should deal with people in various positions in the social hierarchy, and how we display respect. They can provide us with an insurance system of mutual help and ensure provisions to public goods.

But social norms can also have very negative effects on social welfare; they can be “bad” norms. Social norms can connect honour or social status to violent behaviour, create or uphold gender inequality, make us behave in ways that threaten our own health of that of others, or become an obstacle to economic development. Social norms regarding honour and revenge dictate, in some areas, that you are required to answer an insult with an even greater insult, possibly resulting in a vendetta that only ends when one of you  is dead (and probably many others as well). Social norms dictate, in some areas, that bringing a gun to school shows that you are cool and brave. Social norms dictate, in some areas, that binge drinking is not only an acceptable but an expected behaviour among college students, and that failure to do so indicates that you are boring and unsocial. 

Because of the great impact social norms have on social welfare, policy makers have a strong incentive to change undesirable social norms, and to support norms with positive effects. But despite the fact that research on social norms has flourished in the last 25 years in as varied fields as philosophy, political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, behavioural economics, law and psychology there is still little systematic knowledge about how social norms change – or can be made to change. And this is a serious problem, because it means social science has little to offer policy makers faced with social problems caused in part by problematic social norms.  The designers of such policy programs are struggling, perhaps not in the dark, but at least in twilight, when it comes to designing successful programs. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that outcomes of such policy programs often are difficult to measure directly (WHO 2009), which makes a trial and error approach in efficient. Therefore, an understanding of what mechanisms for social norm change are likely to make policy programs successful is very important.

Research questions

This project has two aims: the main one is to develop a better theory of social norm change, and the other, then, is to use this as a basis for the development of tentative suggestions for the design of more efficient policy programs for social norm change. It will do so by focusing on mechanisms for social norm change. Our knowledge of such mechanisms is fragmented and incomplete.

This project will add three important missing pieces to the puzzle of how social norms change, by addressing the following questions:

  1. What does the theory that social norms are the result of signalling behaviour suggest in terms of mechanisms for social norm change?
  2. What can we learn from behavioural economics about mechanisms for social norm change?
  3. What can we learn from policy programs that aim to change social norms in practice?

Addressing these three questions will enable us develop a more complete theory of social norm change. That, in turn, then enables us develop tentative suggestions for how to go about changing social norms through policy programs, which is the second aim of the project.




Eriksson, L. (2019). Social norms as signals. Social Theory and Practice 45(4) 579-599.

Eriksson, L. (2019). Rational reconstructions and the question of function (pdf). Rationality and Society, Vol. 31(4) 409–431.