When was the last time that you transgressed a social norm and received corrective feedback from those around you? I have an inventory of examples, most of them thankfully small, like the time I went bowling and didn’t realize that if someone in the lane next to you is about to bowl, you are supposed to wait until they are finished before taking your turn. The feedback that I received was gentle and friendly, but I was overcome with a sense of shame for not following the rules!

All of us are experts on norms and their enforcement since they are part of the human experience. Not all theories of human society acknowledge the importance of norms, however, and orthodox economic theory is especially clueless about them, pretending that entirely “self-regarding” agents are guided by the invisible hand of the market to benefit society as a whole.

Against this background, an evolutionary worldview provides a welcome return to common sense by placing norms and their enforcement at the center of what it means to be human. Without norms and their enforcement, we would be unable to coordinate our behavior in groups and adapt to our environments as well as we do.

In addition to returning to common sense, an evolutionary worldview can help us go beyond common sense by clarifying the ingredients required for a given norm to be established and enforced. First, there must be a general awareness of the norm, which is what I didn’t have when I went bowling. Second, there must be a consensus that the norm is important; otherwise, it would not be worth enforcing. Third, it must be possible to monitor transgressions. Fourth, there must be rewards for good behavior and/or punishment of deviant behavior, which starts out friendly and gentle but escalates when necessary.

When these ingredients are in place, the formation and enforcement of norms are so spontaneous that they become second nature. Experienced bowlers don’t need to think about the norm that I transgressed because it has become habitual for them. When these ingredients are absent, however, then work is required to establish them. Otherwise, societal dysfunctions will inevitably occur.

In a recent essay, I used this framework to comment on the topic of sexual bullying, which is much in the news. Most people disapprove of unwanted sexual advances in the abstract, along with other forms of bullying, but that’s not enough to establish a norm. Unless the four ingredients are in place, this particular form of bullying behavior will occur. In some social environments, the four ingredients are in place and sexual bullying is rare or absent. In other social environments, the four ingredients are not in place, and sexual bullying can become rampant. In short, this particular form of antisocial behavior has a distribution and abundance in human social life, based on the presence and absence of the ingredients required to establish and enforce a norm.

My use of the term “distribution and abundance” is borrowed from the field of ecology, which studies the geographical distribution and abundance of non-human species. We can get a lot of mileage out of this metaphorical transfer, thinking of a particular human behavior as like a species that thrives in some social environments but not others, depending upon underlying growth conditions.

In my earlier essay, I suggested that we are witnessing a remarkable shift in the distribution and abundance of sexual bullying, based on establishing the four ingredients where they didn’t exist before. Thanks to all the media attention and the willingness of victims (including both women and men) to go public with their stories: 1) Awareness of sexual bullying is spreading; 2) it is being perceived as deeply wrong; 3) its occurrence is being monitored, and 4) There are consequences for transgressions. I, therefore, welcome these developments as socially restorative, with the proviso that allegations of sexual bullying can itself become disruptive unless we are responsible for how we establish the four ingredients. Also, how about some praise for powerful people who refrain from sexual bullying, to complement condemnation of those who don’t?

Truth-telling is another topic that is much in the news and can benefit from clear thinking about norms. Nearly everyone will agree in the abstract that it is important to tell the truth and avoid lying for self-serving purposes. Yet, that is not sufficient to establish a norm. Unless the four ingredients are in place, “fake news” and other forms of lying will take place, as surely as sexual bullying.

The idea that truth-telling has a “distribution and abundance” in human social life is even more clear-cut than the example of sexual bullying. If you are a scientist or a scholar, you are thoroughly enculturated to regard truth-telling as a cardinal virtue (ingredients 1 and 2), your work is made transparent to others by formal and informal peer-review processes (ingredient 3), and there are strong sanctions against lying (ingredient 4). Thanks to these ingredients, truth-telling can become as habitual as waiting until the person in the next lane has bowled before taking your turn. Judicial proceedings are another example of a social environment where truth-telling norms are strongly enforced. We are compelled to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with jail time if we fail.

The example of journalism appears to be more mixed. In some parts of the journalistic world, truth-telling norms are maintained as assiduously as among scholars and scientists, but a propensity to generate “fake news” has taken over in other parts. I haven’t made a formal study, but I sense that the trend is in the direction of the erosion of truth-telling norms, in contrast to sexual bullying, where the trend is in the direction of the establishment of norms.

When we get to social media on the Internet, the ingredients for the establishment and enforcement of truth-telling norms are almost entirely lacking. In a partisan world, lying to provide an advantage to “us” over “them” can become a moral virtue, it isn’t well monitored, and there are few negative consequences when it is exposed.

It is easy to imagine modern society falling apart due to the collapse of truth-telling norms.

Nevertheless, thinking about norms from an evolutionary perspective provides grounds for hope. With a little bit of clear thinking and action, we can expand the distribution and abundance of prosocial behaviors by providing the ingredients required for the establishment and enforcement of the appropriate norms, as surely as we can expand the distribution and abundance of endangered species by providing the right growth conditions. This is not just wishful thinking, but proven examples of norm restoration already exist, as I will report in my next essay on the subject of norms.

Published On: December 4, 2017

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

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  • Mark Sloan says:

    For me also, “It is easy to imagine modern society falling apart due to the collapse of truth-telling norms.” Climate change denial, trickle-down economics, and demonization of those who are different are all lies that threaten our society and even our survival. Unfortunately, these lies in particular are enthusiastically proclaimed, for self-interested reasons, by most of the leadership of the Republican party who are running our government.

    I appreciate the origins in science and the functions of the four ingredients you list for reinforcing norms. Focusing on truth telling itself rather than the details of each of the above lies may be the best way forward. Perhaps, at bottom, telling lies is the biggest threat we face. In any case, keeping quiet and looking out only for our own is not a plan for success in staving off disaster.

  • David Ronfeldt says:

    It may well be true that “It is easy to imagine modern society falling apart due to the collapse of truth-telling norms.” But the erosion and collapse of such norms is more an epiphenomenon than a “due to” cause that attends and reinforces a society’s falling apart. What lies behind the erosion of a society’s general norms is the increasing reversion to the tribal form and tribalism by lots of people — including that us-vs.-them mentality you mention. For extreme tribalists, what’s truth to them is thus no longer eroding but finally coming into its own. So, in order to restore truth-telling norms, ways must be found to reduce the abundance of reversions to the tribal form and tribalism.

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