Jonathan Schulz’s study, “Social Norms and Dishonesty across Societies,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

by Anne Reynolds

Jonathan Schulz’s study, “Social Norms and Dishonesty across Societies,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Jonathan Schulz, assistant professor, Department of Economics

What drives pro-social behavior in communities? To a large extent, positive behavior is driven by social norms, and conventional wisdom suggests that stricter social norms elicit stronger pro-social behavior. New research from a team including Jonathan Schulz, assistant professor in the Department of Economics, now indicates that there are limits to the effects of these norms on pro-social behavior.  

This week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is publishing a study, “Social Norms and Dishonesty across Societies,” that presents evidence that very strict pro-social norms have a surprisingly negative impact on pro-social behavior.  

“Social norms are important to shape and govern our behavior.” said Schulz. “The typical assumption, and what many studies show, is that the stronger the social norms ... the more people behave according to those norms. What we show in this study is that if those norms are getting too strict – when even a small lie is viewed as just as bad as a large lie – then those norms are not functioning as intended anymore. Those people with these very strong norms are suddenly more likely to cheat to the maximum degree possible.” 

Through laboratory experiments conducted with undergraduate students in ten culturally diverse countries, and through surveys on civic norms that represented more than 3,000 respondents from 26 countries, Schulz’s team found that individuals who professed very strict adherence to norms of honesty were more likely to lie to the maximum extent possible. 

The study’s findings suggest that this counter-intuitive result is based on a behavioral rationale: if the perceived penalty for violating a norm in a minimal way is the same as the penalty for a significant violation, the individual benefits by violating the norm to the maximum extent. 

“If there’s no marginal deterrence,” explained Schulz, “why not go all in and cheat all the way?” 

Moreover, Schulz’s team, which includes Mason alumnus Diego Aycinena, MA Economics ‘04, PhD ‘07, from the Universidad del Rosario, Colombia, Lucas Rentschler from Utah State University, and Ben Beranek from Missouri State University, found that this pattern holds beyond the behavior of individuals and extends to the country level. Looking at survey respondents from about 100 countries, the study found that countries with a higher fraction of people who hold very strict norms “often have more severe rule violations at the country level,” in terms of electoral fraud, corruption, and a shadow economy. 

Schulz emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the study. “The results are of interest for psychologists, for cultural evolutionists, but also economists. It also has a connection to current politics,” he said. 

The findings complement traditional understandings of how norms relate to the economic success of countries. “There’s a long-standing strand of literature in economics showing that countries with stronger pro-social or civic norms do better economically,” said Schulz. “But now if we zoom in, we also see that although many poor countries have these very strict norms, this does not translate to better economic outcomes. This was never really reflected” in earlier studies.