We cooperate better when faced with a risk
When faced with major collective risks, such as climate change or the coronavirus pandemic, we accept more restrictive social norms. We also become more willing to cooperate with those persons we do not know. However, when we perceive that the risks are reduced, for instance, when the Coronavirus restrictions in society have been lifted, we become less willing to accept restrictive social norms. Mälardalen University (MDH) has been conducting research on this topic in cooperation with universities in Madrid, Spain and Turin, Italy.
Giulia Andrighetto, researcher at Mälardalen University, explains further:
“We know that social norms can help solve urgent societal challenges, such as mitigating climate change or reducing the spread of infection. Even though we know how valuable social norms are, we know very little about how these social norms influence and shape cooperation between people at the societal level. There are also theories about how the level of threat plays a key role in how strong the norms in various social cultures become. Therefore, we wanted to investigate how these social norms influence cooperation in society.”
The greater the risk, the stronger the social norms
The study shows, notably, that the greater the risk of a collective disaster, the greater the strength of social norms (and in particular the punishment for those who do not follow them). In addition, the study shows that when risk perception decreases at the societal level, so does compliance with the norms.
A recent example where the results of the study can be used is the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Since vaccinations have been carried out among a large part of Sweden's and Europe's population, society currently perceives the risk of infection of the coronavirus as lower.
“That leads to two things; in groups where there were many people who did not comply with the restrictions regarding, for example, keeping social distance, among younger age groups in particular, this norm has now disappeared completely. On the other hand, however, some groups of people continue to wear face masks, keep their distance and are careful with bodily contact, even when it is no longer mandatory to do so. As regards the latter group, a new habit or new norm has been established due to the previous strict restrictions around that,” says Giulia Andrighetto.
The study was designed as a social experiment
The study was conducted as a social experiment consisting of 300 participants. Every day during a whole month, everyone had to decide and also contribute with points to prevent a collective disaster. If the participants didn’t contribute with enough points together, disaster would strike and everyone would lose their points. All participants were asked about their expectations of what other participants would contribute with and what others expected from them. This allowed researchers to identify the social norms and study the behaviour of those persons who adapted to the norms.
“In this way, it became clear during the study that each individual had their own expectations and norms but changed them by observing others. Only when these expectations and norms were shared by many people, did they become social norms,” says Giulia Andrighetto.
The 30-day study was conducted in cooperation with the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin, the Italian National Research Council and the Institute for Future Studies in Stockholm. Furthermore, the research article regarding the study has been published in the Nature Communications journal.
The research in this study has been conducted as part of the ”How do human norms form and change?” project, funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation where Giulia Andrighetto was awarded funds.