NoBeC Early Career Researchers

Early Career Researchers (including PhD Students and Post-Docs), we want to hear from you!
Send us your info and a 5-minute video explaining your research related (broadly) to social norms and behavioral change and we’ll broadcast it to an international audience of researchers at the beginning of one of our NoBeC Talks!

Social Norms Explain the Effects of Incentives on Prosocial Behavior

Caroline Graf | PhD student, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Netherlands)
4th February 2021

Incentives have surprisingly inconsistent effects when it comes to encouraging people to behave prosocially. That is, the effects of incentives vary across incentive types, private versus public settings and across countries. Previous theoretical accounts have explained these phenomena by postulating an additive effect of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and reputational motivation. We build on these theories, but introduce a key theoretical modification: Reputational motivation depends on social norms. We empirically test our model on the real-world prosocial behavior of blood donation using a comparative dataset comprising representative samples from 28 European countries. We find that social norms can account for the varying effects of financial and time incentives on donation behavior across countries. That is, incentives were associated with higher levels of prosociality when social norms regarding the incentive were more positive. The results indicate that social norms regarding incentives play an important role in determining the effect of incentives on prosocial behavior.

Information about Inequality and Support for Redistribution

Abraham Aldama | Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania (US)
18th February 2021

Since the 1960s, income inequality has increased in the US. However, taxation on the rich has decreased in the same period. The literature has provided several explanations for why this might be the case. We focus on people’s perception of the extent of inequality. Using a large scale online experiment, we find that providing information about inequality and incentives to overcome cognitive and ideiological biases changes people’s perceptions about the extent of inequality in the US. However, this does not translate into changes in the demand for redistribution through either public or private means. We further find that the lack of change in preferences is not driven by differential responses across across a number of subgroups.

Drivers of conformity in social behaviour

Folco Panizza | Postdoctoral Researcher, Vita Salute San Raffaele University (Italy)
11th March 2021

Learning social behaviour of others strongly influences one’s own social attitudes. We compare several distinct explanations of this phenomenon, testing their predictions using computational modelling across four experimental conditions. In the experiment, participants chose repeatedly whether to pay for increasing (prosocial) or decreasing (antisocial) the earnings of an unknown other. Halfway through the task, participants predicted the choices of an extremely prosocial or antisocial agent (either a computer, a single participant, or a group of participants). Our analyses indicate that participants polarise their social attitude mainly due to normative expectations. Specifically, most participants conform to presumed demands by the authority (vertical influence), or because they learn that the observed human agents follow the norm very closely (horizontal influence).

Promoting social distancing in a pandemic: Beyond the good intentions

Sarah Zaccagni | Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
1st April 2021

Do reminders to promote social distancing achieve the desired effects? Much of the existing literature analyses impacts on people’s intentions to comply. We run a randomised controlled trial in Denmark to test different versions of a reminder to stay home at the beginning of the crisis. Using a two-stage design, we follow up with recipients and analyse their subsequent behaviour. We find that the reminder increases ex-ante intentions to comply when it emphasises the consequences of non-compliance for the subjects themselves and their families, while it has no effect when the emphasis is on other people or the country as a whole. We also find, however, that impacts on intentions do not translate into equivalent impacts on actions. This is despite the possibility that respondents may tend to over-report compliance. Only people in poor health react to the reminder by staying home more. Our results shed light on important gaps between people’s intentions and their actions in responding to the recommendations of health authorities.

Bribery across borders - Experimental evidence on conditional corruption from 21 countries

Nils Köbis | Postdoctoral Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Germany)
22nd April 2021

Large behavioral studies have analyzed individual forms of unethical behavior, like cheating, worldwide. The findings suggest that stark and relatively stable differences between countries concerning unethical behavior exist. Yet, many forms of unethical behavior are transactional and involve multiple parties, like bribery. To gain first behavioral insights that allow comparing the occurrence of bribery across and between countries, we ran large incentivized online experiments using a bribery game with representative samples (in terms of age and gender) from 21 countries (total N = 6472) across six continents. In contrast to previous research, all participants were paired with a participant from each of the other countries, enabling first, comprehensive behavioral insights into cross-national dyadic forms of unethical behavior. The results uncover vast intra-individual variation, suggestive of what we label “conditional bribery” — people offering bribes to interaction partners from countries that are (expected to be) corrupt. Importantly, these beliefs do not correlate with reality.

When Women and Racial Minorities Seek Help, Mentioning Their Demographic Identity is an Asset

Erika Kirgios | PhD Student, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (US)
13th May 2021

Receiving help can make or break a career, but women and racial minorities do not always receive the instrumental support they seek. Across two audit experiments—one with politicians and another with students—as well as an online experiment (total N = 5,148), we test whether women and racial minorities benefit from explicitly mentioning their demographic identity in requests for help (e.g., by including statements like “As a Black woman. . . ” in their communications). We propose that when someone highlights their marginalized identity, it activates prospective helpers’ motivations to avoid prejudiced reactions. This ultimately increases prospective helpers’ willingness to provide support. Consistent with this theorizing, when marginalized identity group members explicitly mentioned their demographic identity in help-seeking emails, politicians and students responded 24.4% and 79.6% more often, respectively. Our online experiment suggests this effect is driven by prospective helpers’ increased desire to respond without prejudice.

Uncovering Hidden Opinions: The contagion of Xenophobic Views

Amalia Alvarez-Benjumea | Senior Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods (Germany)
3rd June 2021

Research has shown that anti-prejudice norms are widespread and generally supported by society, yet examples of prejudice can be found often. I argue that anti-prejudice norms can easily erode when individuals observe examples of norm-violations. As a result, exposure to prejudice speech makes it more likely that individuals will express their prejudice. To test this, participants were invited to take part in a controlled online forum on immigration issues. The comments of participants exposed to xenophobic speech were compared to those not exposed. The empirical results show that observing hateful comments of others erodes own norm-compliance: the more hateful comments participants could observe, the more hateful subsequent comments. Furthermore, the effect is larger amongst those more likely to hold anti-immigrant views. I believe this is evidence of an “emboldening effect”, that is, in the absence of prejudiced speech, prejudiced citizens constrain the expression of their prejudice. However, if xenophobic speech seems to be socially accepted, hidden attitudes are revealed. The results imply that norms can easily erode and that the preservation of a “norm environment” requires sustained reinforcement of the norm.

Non-selfish behavior: Are social preferences or social norms revealed in distribution decisions?

Nina Weber | PhD Student, King’s College London (U.K.)
24th June 2021

People frequently choose to reduce own payoffs to help others. This non-selfish behavior is typically assumed to arise because people are motivated by social preferences. An alternative explanation is that they follow social norms. We test which of these two accounts can better explain subjects’ decisions in a simple distribution game. Unlike previous studies, we elicit preferences and perceived norms directly for each subject. We find that norm-following explains people’s distributive choices better than social preferences, and lack of confidence in one’s social preference predicts norm-following. Our findings have implications for the strength of the Pareto criterion in welfare evaluations.

Personal norms - and not only social norms - shape economic behavior

Eugenio Verrina | Postdoctoral Researcher, GATE CNRS (France)
1st July 2021

While social norms have received great attention within economics, little is known about the role of personal norms. We propose a simple utility framework and design a novel two-part experiment to study their relevance across various economic games and settings. We show that personal norms – together with social norms and monetary payoff – are highly predictive of individuals’ behavior. Moreover, they are: i) distinct from social norms across a series of economic contexts, ii) robust to an exogenous increase in the salience of social norms, and iii) complementary to social norms in predicting behavior. Our findings support personal norms as a key driver of economic behavior.

Strategic Behavior with Tight and Loose Norms

Anna Hochleitner | PhD student, University of Nottingham (UK)
15th July 2021

A large body of literature has shown that social norms can be a powerful driver of human behavior, and norm interventions often focus on shifting beliefs about average or majoritarian behavior. This work addresses a less studied aspect of norms, namely their strength or tightness. We investigate how individuals react to different distributions of co-player behavior within the context of a strategic game — the public good game (PGG) — where subjects strongly condition their actions on those of their opponent. We focus on the difference between tight (i.e., characterized by low behavioral variance) and loose (i.e., characterized by high behavioral variance) norm environments. Our data show that individual responses vary considerably in these two cases, with loose norms generating more variance in individual responses compared to tight norms. In other words, “tight breeds tight” and “loose breeds loose”. What’s more, when confronted with a polarized (U-shaped) distribution of the opponent’s contribution, people’s reactions are also polarized. Finally, we find that, in loose environments, personal values have a stronger predictive power for individual behavior than in the case of tight norms. This shows that it is crucial to consider differences in the strength of norms in order to understand their impact on behavior.

Fear of COVID-19 changes economic preferences: Evidence from a repeated cross-sectional MTurk survey

Abdelaziz Alsharawy | PhD graduate, Virginia Tech (US)
5th August 2021

The personal experience of events such as financial crises and natural disasters can alter economic preferences. We administered a repeated cross-sectional preference survey during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, collecting three bi-weekly samples from participants recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk. The survey elicits economic preferences, self-reported fear of the pandemic, and beliefs about economic and health consequences. Preferences varied over time and across regions, and self-reported fear of the pandemic explains this variation. These findings suggest caution with regard to the generalizability of some types of experimental work during times of heightened fear.

Gender norms among adolescents in two communities of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, Panamá

Amanda Gabster | Researcher, Gorgas Memorial Institute for Health Studies (Panama)
26th August 2021

The Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé (CNB), an administratively autonomous Indigenous region in western Panama. This Comarca is home to over 200,000 rural Indigenous peoples of Ngäbe and Buglé ethnicities. HIV prevalence in the Comarca is two times higher than the national average and is concentrated in young men. Gender norms, defined by Cislaghi, et al. as social norms that define acceptable behaviour for women and men, play a role in shaping women and men´s voice and agency and play a role in sexual decision making. Gender norms may be different across different societies. Despite the importance of gender norms and the high prevalence of HIV among youth in the CNB, there are little data regarding gender norms and sexual behaviour among the Ngäbe and Buglé peoples. This presentation focuses on qualitative research undertaken between January and March 2018, among 20 young men and women of the CNB. The presentation describes the findings of young women´s voice and therefore agency in the decision to engage in sex.

Helping the Climate Because Others Do Psychological Predictors of Intention to Perform High Impact Pro-Environmental Behaviors

Erik Thulin| Director, Behavioral Science, Center for Behavior & the Environment, Rare (US)
16th September 2021

Individual behaviors are major contributors to climate change, and changing those behaviors can have a major effect on the magnitude of the climate crisis. To best design interventions to change these behaviors, and target those most likely to change, we must understand the psychological motivations for engaging in them. Previous work has identified environmental beliefs, political orientation, and social expectations as having significant effects on performing pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs). However, this work has tended to focus on lower impact, commonly performed behaviors. In this exploratory study, we evaluate the relevance of these three constructs on predicting individuals’ intention to perform four behaviors previously identified as some of the highest impact individual actions to mitigate greenhouse gas production: driving an electric vehicle, purchasing carbon offsets, switching to a green energy provider, and installing solar panels. Of those three constructs, we find that only social expectations is a strong consistent predictor of intending to perform these high-impact PEBs. These findings suggest that highlighting others performing these behaviors, rather than framing actions in appeals to climate beliefs or targeting those on the political left, may be a particularly effective intervention strategy to drive individual action to mitigate climate change.

On the value of investigating experiences and perceptions of nudges

Patrik Michaelsen | Researcher, Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg (Sweden)
21st October 2021

I outline some reasons why we should care more about how people experience and perceive nudge-style behavior change interventions, and give a (very) brief presentation of some empirical findings.

The cost of social division

Manu Munoz| Postdoctoral Researcher, NYU Abu Dhabi (UAE)
4th November 2021

I study how identity choice can be an instrument of change when members of a minority group are socially excluded by the dominant group for following an inefficient social norm. In this paper I study the problem of identity choice both theoretically and experimentally, looking at the trade-off for minority members between maintaining their inefficient behavior as a unit or adopting the group identity of the majority and joining a more efficient collective. I find that social division is a prominent outcome, in which the minority divides into some that abandon the group’s identity and others that persist on it. Social division has costly consequences not only on those who persist on the inefficient form of behavior. People who change their group identity to integrate with the majority have significantly less chances to succeed when they come from a socially divided minority. When looking at the determinants of social division, I find that groups that have a system of sanctions to prevent their members from leaving are more likely to end up fractured. Thus, policies focused on reducing the barriers to leave inefficient social groups and not only on increasing the benefits of integration may mitigate the costs of social division.

Persuading Republicans and Democrats to Comply with Mask Wearing

Dylan Pieper | Research Specialist, University of Maryland
18th November 2021

Many people practiced COVID-19-related safety measures in the first year of the pandemic, but Republicans were less likely to engage in behaviors such as wearing masks or face coverings than Democrats, suggesting radical disparities in health practices split along political fault lines. We developed an “intervention tournament” which aimed to identify the framings that would promote mask wearing among a representative sample of Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. (N = 4,931). Seven different conditions reflecting different moral values and factors specific to COVID-19—including protection from harm (self), protection from harm (community), patriotic duty, purity, reviving the economy, threat, and scientific evidence—were implemented to identify which framings would “win” in terms of promoting mask wearing compared to a baseline condition. We found that Republicans had significantly more negative attitudes toward masks, lower intentions to wear them, and were less likely to sign or share pledges on social media than Democrats, which was partially mediated by Republicans, compared to Democrats, perceiving that the threat of COVID-19 was lower. None of our framing conditions significantly affected Republicans’ or Democrats’ attitudes, intentions, or behaviors compared to the baseline condition, illustrating the difficulty in overcoming the strength of political polarization during COVID-19.

Politicizing Mask-Wearing: Predicting the Success of Behavioral Interventions Among Republicans and Democrats

Elena Giuila Clemente | Pre-Doctoral Research Analyst, Stockholm School of Economics & Swedish House of Finance
2nd December 2021

Scientists and policymakers seek to choose effective interventions that promote preventative health measures. We evaluated whether academics, behavioral science practitioners, and laypeople (N = 1,034) were able to forecast the effectiveness of seven different messages compared to a baseline message for Republicans and Democrats separately. These messages were designed to nudge mask-wearing attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. When examining prediction error across political parties, forecasters predicted larger effects than those observed for Democrats compared to Republicans and made more accurate predictions for Republicans compared to Democrats. These results are partly driven by a lack of nudge effects on Democrats, as reported in Gelfand et al. (2021). Academics and practitioners made more accurate predictions compared to laypeople. Although forecasters’ predictions were correlated with the nudge interventions, all groups overpredicted the observed results. We discuss how accurate forecasts of behavioral intervention outcomes provide insight that can help save resources and increase the efficacy of interventions by updating the accuracy of forecasters’ beliefs.

Norm-signalling punishment

Nina Xue | PhD Student, Monash University
16th December 2021

Literature on punishment and cooperation has presented conflicting findings. While in some settings, punishment crowds out norm compliance and backfires, in others, it communicates norms and promotes cooperation. We examine whether the punisher’s motives can help reconcile the conflicting results through a novel paradigm in which the decision maker’s outcomes are identical in two environments, but vary whether punishment is self-serving (potentially benefits the punisher) or altruistic (potentially benefits a third party). Punishment is more (less) effective when it is motivated by other-regarding (self-interested) concerns and only altruistic punishment increases the social stigma of self-interested behavior.

Willful Ignorance: a Meta-Analysis

Linh Vu | PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam
13th January 2022

Decision making is prone to willful ignorance. While deliberate information avoidance is beneficial to the decision maker to maximize self-interest, this behavior can induce adverse consequences to others. What drives willful ignorance, and when are people most likely to engage in this behavior? We present the first meta-analysis on willful ignorance, analyzing 34,007 decisions made by 6,436 participants from 56 different treatments. We provide an overview of all methodologies used to investigate willful ignorance and identify the precise boundaries in which willful ignorance occurs. Results reveal a significant amount of subjects engaging in willful ignorance to obtain the selfish outcome. Further, our findings show willful ignorance depends on both situational factors, such as financial temptation for the decision maker and potential harm for the affected entity, and personal factors, such as the decision maker’s age and gender. We propose the ceiling effect as an explanation for the moderating effect of financial temptation, and we address societal implications for our understanding of who, why and when individuals engage in willful ignorance.

'Do the Right Thing' for Whom? An Experiment on Ingroup Favouritism, Group Assorting, and Moral Suasion

Tatiana Celadin | Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Bologna 
27th January 2022

In this paper we investigate the effect of moral suasion on ingroup favouritism. We report a well-powered, pre-registered, two-stage 2×2 mixed-design experiment. In the first stage, groups are formed on the basis of how participants answer a set of questions, concerning non-morally relevant issues in one treatment (assorting on non-moral preferences), and morally relevant issues in another treatment (assorting on moral preferences). In the second stage, participants choose how to split a given amount of money between participants of their own group and participants of the other group, first in the baseline setting and then in a setting where they are told to do what they believe to be morally right (moral suasion).

Our main results are: (i) in the baseline, participants tend to favour their own group to a greater extent when groups are assorted according to moral preferences, compared to when they are assorted according to non-moral preferences; (ii) the net effect of moral suasion is to decrease ingroup favouritism, but there is also a non-negligible proportion of participants for whom moral suasion increases ingroup favouritism; (iii) the effect of moral suasion is substantially stable across group assorting and four pre-registered individual characteristics (gender, political orientation, religiosity, pro-life vs pro-choice ethical convictions).

The Interplay of Social Identity and Norm Psychology in the Evolution of Human Groups

Kati Kish Bar-On | PhD Student, Tel Aviv University
10th February 2022

People’s attitudes towards social norms play a crucial role in understanding group behavior. Norm psychology accounts focus on processes of norm internalization that influence people’s norm following attitudes but pay considerably less attention to social identity and group identification processes. Social identity theory studies group identity but works with a relatively thin and instrumental notion of social norms. We argue that to best understand both sets of phenomena, it is important to integrate the insights of both approaches. Social status, social identity, and social norms are considered separate phenomena in evolutionary accounts. We discuss assumptions and views that support this separation, and suggest an integrated view of our own. We conclude that we should be open to the early origins of human social complexity, and conjecture that the longer the human social world involved multi-level societies the more probable it is that norm psychology and social identity interacted in rich ways.

Can Moral Reminders Curb Corruption? Evidence from an Online Classroom Experiment

Corinna Claus | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
24th February 2022

Using an incentivized online classroom experiment, we assess the effectiveness of deontological vs. consequentialist moral reminders. Participants were told that they are the responsible public servant for acquiring a Covid-19 vaccine, providing them with the opportunity to generate some extra private income by accepting a bribe.

Our findings indicate that a deontological moral reminder (“corruption is immoral”) leads to a significant reduction in accepting bribes. A consequentialist moral reminder, pointing out that bribes are costly to taxpayers, shows no significant effect. Furthermore, we do not find any empirical support that male participants are more corrupt in comparison to female participants. Students majoring in economics or business/management show more corrupt behavior than students studying to become economics school teachers, but the difference is not statistically significant. A person’s disposition towards risk appears to have a strong dissuading effects. Our experiment was conducted before and after the unexpected announcement by pharmaceutical companies BioNTech and Pfizer on November 9th, 2020, that they will be able to provide an effective Covid-19 vaccine. This announcement does not correlate with a changed level of bribe-taking.

Global Behaviors, Perceptions, and Social Norms at the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Erez Yoeli | MIT Sloan
10th March 2022

We conducted a large-scale survey covering 58 countries and over 100,000 respondents between late March and early April 2020 to study beliefs and attitudes towards citizens’ and governments’ responses at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most respondents reported holding normative beliefs in support of COVID-19 containment measures, as well as high rates of adherence to these measures. They also believed that their government and their country’s citizens were not doing enough and underestimated the degree to which others in their country supported strong behavioral and policy responses to the pandemic. Normative beliefs were strongly associated with adherence, as well as beliefs about others’ and the government’s response. Lockdowns were associated with greater optimism about others’ and the government’s response, and improvements in measures of perceived mental well-being; these effects tended to be larger for those with stronger normative beliefs. Our findings highlight how social norms can arise quickly and effectively to support cooperation at a global scale.

Breaking the Silence - Group Discussions, Social Pressure, and the Adoption of Health Technologies

Clarissa Mang | University of Munich – LMU Munich
7th April 2022

The adoption of modern health technologies and hygienic practices is often slow, particularly in developing countries. We use a field experiment to measure menstrual hygiene practices and find that social pressure and stigma contribute to the slow adoption of available and affordable modern menstrual health products. We vary participation exogenously in group discussions aimed at “breaking the silence” around menstruation, where participants share their own personal experiences. We find a positive effect on the willingness to pay for modern menstrual products already available on the market (sanitary pads) and on the adoption of a completely new technology (anti-bacterial menstrual underwear). Our results suggest that the underlying causal mechanism is the updating of second-order beliefs about social norms directly related to product take-up, and a reduction in the stigma associated with menstruation.

Shallow Meritocracy

Peter Andre | Postdoc, briq Institute on Behavior & Inequality
21st April 2022

Meritocracies aspire to reward effort and hard work but promise not to judge individuals by the circumstances they were born into. The choice to work hard, however, is often shaped by circumstances. This study investigates whether people’s merit judgments are sensitive to this endogeneity of choice. In a series of incentivized experiments with a large, representative US sample, study participants judge how much money workers deserve for the effort they exert. Unequal circumstances strongly discourage some workers from working hard. Nonetheless, I find that individuals hold disadvantaged workers fully responsible for their choices. They do so, even though they understand that choices are strongly influenced by circumstances. Additional experiments identify the cause of this behavior. In light of an uncertain counterfactual state – what would have happened on a level playing field – individuals base their merit judgments on the only reliable evidence they possess: observed effort levels. I confirm these patterns in a structural model of fairness views and a vignette study with real-world scenarios. Taken together, the findings suggest that the prevailing conception of meritocratic fairness is likely to be “shallow”. People ignore that external circumstances influence the choices that agents make and hold them responsible for these choices. Choices can thereby “launder” unequal circumstances and legitimize the ensuing inequality.

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Sincere or Motivated? Partisan Bias in Non-political Information Processing

Yunhao (Jerry) Zhang | PhD Student, MIT Sloan
5th May 2022

Political divisions have become a central feature of modern life. Here, we ask whether these divisions affect performance outside the context of politics. Indeed, in an incentivized non-political news assessment task, we find that subjects are less swayed by (accurate) information that comes from a counter-partisan compared to from a co-partisan. We then adjudicate between two possible mechanisms for this biased advice-taking: a preference-based account, where subjects are motivated to take less advice from counter-partisans because doing so is unpleasant; versus a belief-based account, where subjects sincerely believe co-partisans are more competent at the task (even though this belief is incorrect). To do so, we examine the impact of a 1000-fold increase in the stakes, which should increase accuracy motivations (and thereby reduce the relative impact of partisan motivations). We find that increasing the stakes does not reduce biased advice-taking. We also find that subjects (incorrectly) believe that co-partisans are better at the task, and that this incorrect belief is not reduced by raising the stakes of the belief elicitation. Finally, we find that subjects readily correct their misbelief that co-partisans perform better on the task after being given corrective feedback. These findings support a belief-based, rather than a preference-based, account of politically biased advice-taking, with important implications for understanding partisan bias and improving workplace collaboration.

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