Black Boxes and Trendsetters: Social Norm Change Tips from Cristina

Image Credit: Pratik Doshi

By Dhaval Kothari, Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program

We have spent the past several months deciphering how social norms can most effectively be integrated into anti-corruption programming. In programs that touch – directly or indirectly – corruption, accountability and transparency, or governance, appropriately addressing social norms can complement and reinforce program strategies. Equally, ignoring social norms can put the brakes on programming.

To address the importance and possible negative consequences of not integrating social norms correctly into programming, we spoke to Cristina Bicchieri, one of the foremost scholars of social norms changes. Spanning issues related to corruption, hygiene and many others, her research examines the nature and evolution of social norms, how to measure norms, and what strategies can foster social change,

While we discussed several issues pertaining to social norm change, this post highlights Cristina’s views on:

  1. Why are some social norm change programs ineffective?
  2. Why trendsetters matter in social norms change programming? and
  3. How should anti-corruption actors think about social norms change interventions?

1. Why are some social norm change programs ineffective?

Given Cristina’s experience working on social norms change across a whole variety of sectors, we were curious as to her opinion on the distinguishing factors between an effective and ineffective intervention. Cristina’s response boiled down to one fundamental difference – correctly understanding what social norms are and understanding what motivates people to behave in a certain way.

To crystalize this point, Cristina spoke about the difference between motivating factors behind open defecation and female genital mutilation. She stated that open defecation is not a norm, but a custom as it is just a means to satisfy one’s needs in a specific circumstance. There is no social expectation to openly defecate or a fear of sanctions if one does not defecate in the open. However, female genital mutilation may be a social norm in certain circumstances as one may be expected to engage in female mutilation because most people in a particular reference group engage in it with the fear of negative consequences if one does not conform to it.

Credit: Pratik Doshi

According to Cristina, norm nudging works within a ‘black box’. The black box is a bundle of socially motivating factors that people must behave in a certain way. Since it is extremely difficult to see what is inside this black box—i.e., identifying motivating factors—most programs do not go the extra mile in doing so and ‘shoot in the dark’. The programs that are ineffective do not identify whether the behaviour in question is independent or interdependent. While, if they identify behaviour to be interdependent, they sometimes do not take the next step of discovering the causality between expectations and behaviours. We must understand that the crux of it is to truly understand how social norms operate and going that extra mile to understand what motivate people to behave in a certain way.

2. Why do trendsetters matter in social norms change programming?

According to Cristina, trendsetters are people within a community that show others that one can act differently and not suffer terrible consequences. They are willing to incur the cost of early deviation and therefore crucial for catalysing social change.  She maintains it is important for social norm change programming to empower trendsetters with autonomy and flexibility to act and provide them with the faith that their efforts will be backed and supported.

Cristina further explains that typically, there are trendsetters that spearhead new norms and trendsetters that eliminate certain norms.  It is important for practitioners to assess what they are seeking – building a new positive norm or eliminating a negative norm.

Credit: Pratik Doshi

For programs that seek to leverage trendsetters to change social norms, she offered a few insights. There is the assumption that if someone is a trendsetter in a particular area or circumstances, that person would be a trendsetter in everything. Another common mistake that Cristina has observed in programs is the assumption that trendsetters must be at the centre of a network of people holding power or people having certain pedigree in a group. In her experience, she has observed that while dealing with abandonment of a negative norm, trendsetters are often people who are at the periphery of a network in a community. At the same time, she has also seen that when it comes to building a new positive norm, a trendsetter should be at the centre of a network in a community. Essentially, someone who holds certain amount of power and has an established influence over a community.

3. How should anti-corruption actors think about social norms change interventions?

Cristina has observed that several social norm change interventions do not have clarity about what they are trying to change.According to her, anti-corruption practitioners need to first diagnose whether a collective pattern of corrupt behaviour is driven by normative expectations, before saying that an intervention is targeting a social norm change.

While speaking about some of her work relating to corruption, she gave us an example of corrupt police officers in Nigeria where it would not be sufficient for an intervention to target just the corrupt behaviour, but to diagnose and target the expectations that are driving the corrupt behaviour by Nigerian police officers in question. If this is not done, it would be impossible to expect and cultivate sustainable change through an intervention.

Cristina emphasized that practitioners must remember that the corrupted and ‘corruptee’ are driven by different elements. For example, in the case of police officers soliciting bribes in Nigeria, the specific set of police officers hold the social norm of taking bribes and not the citizens that are offering a bribe. It would be the police officers that may fear negative consequences of not meeting the expectation to engage in a corrupt behaviour from their specific group of colleagues. Here, the citizens may be driven by a completely different descriptive norm that is not interlinked to the social norm held by a group of police officers. This enriching conversation raised several nuanced points for CJL as we continue moving forward in our goal to ensure that social norms are correctly integrated into each stage of anti-corruption programming by practitioners. If you want to learn more about the role social norms play in endemic corruption in fragile states, you can access our publication titled “Understanding Social Norms: A Reference Guide for Policy and Practice.” This guide provides practical guidance on a) what social norms are; b) why they should matter to anyone working to diminish corruption in fragile and conflict-affected states; and c) how social norms influence corruption in these contexts.


About Cristina Bicchieri

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Cristina Bicchieri is the S. J. Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Studies and Comparative Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is also director of the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program, the Behavioral Ethics Lab, The Penn Social Norms Group, and The Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics. She is a world authority on the measurement of collective behaviors, and has consulted with the UNICEF Child Protection Section, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the Gates Foundation, BBC Media and many other groups on behavioral measurement and change. She was knighted by the Italian government in 2007, was made Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College at Cambridge University and received the Pufendorf Medal in Sweden in 2015. The author of more than 100 articles and 7 books, including Rationality and Coordination, The Logic of Strategy, The Dynamics of Norms, and Knowledge, Belief, and Strategic Interaction, she has been a fellow at Harvard, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, the London School of Economics (Leverhulme Trust), and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Jerusalem. Her latest books are The Grammar of Society:  The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (2006) and Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure and Change Social Norms (2016).

About the Author

Dhaval Kothari is the Senior Associate at the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program which works to improve the effectiveness of anti-corruption programming in contexts of endemic corruption. He is the co-founder of ADMEL Lab, a social change collaborative striving to embed inclusive accountability in M&E frameworks. His prior work experience includes working with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Nigeria and co-founding a non-profit organization focusing on the development of children from low-income families in India. Prior to this, he practiced as a litigation lawyer for several years focusing on governance and regulatory issues.


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