The cutting edge of social norms research

At the conference in London last week, more than a few people were curious about who is doing work on social norms and in what contexts. The simplest answer is that Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton professor of psychology and my coauthor on a piece about reducing gender-based violence, is working at the forefront of this research. Read pretty much anything by her if you want an idea of things that are going on.

Last year, a World Bank blog post declared social norms to be one of the most exciting areas of research for development, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly social norms are. In our work last week, we heard many wanting to conflate social norms with societal norms or cultural norms.

From the issues paper Laurie Ball Cooper and I presented in London (2012):

Norms are often defined as models or patterns, and societal norms are often defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in a given community (Geertz, 1973). By contrast, social norms are “individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical or desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball, 2010; Cialdini and Trost, 1998). This definition is derived from an extensive social psychological literature focusing on social norms as “socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave” (Paluck, 2007; Miller, Monin and Prentice, 2000). Social norms include both descriptive norms (perceptions about behaviors that are common in the community) and injunctive norms (perceptions about which behaviors are desirable in the community) (Prentice, 2008; Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren, 1990). Individual attitudes and beliefs can be distinguished from these community-oriented concepts of norms: attitudes are individuals’ “evaluative stance toward the self or something in the environment,” and beliefs include “understandings (thought of as factual) of the self or something in the environment” (Paluck and Ball, 2010).

Social norms research is starting to appear in more and more venues. A paper I mentioned briefly in this space examined the intersection between social norms and inheritance laws. This paper reflects how legal reform must take into account local context if it hopes to effect change. The inheritance reform had particularly significant effects because it interacted with the social norm that fathers provide for their sons in Ghana. And a recent World Bank working paper examines corruption through the lens of social norms.


Ball Cooper, Laurie, and Erin K Fletcher. “Reducing societal discrimination against adolescent girls: Using social norms as a tool for behavioral change.” DFID Adolescent Girls technical paper. October 2012. (Available December 2012, hopefully).

Cialdini, R. B., L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, D.W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P.L. Winter (2006). “Managing social norms for persuasive impact.” Journal of Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Miller, D. T., B. Monin, B., & D.A. Prentice (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. In D. J. Terry and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership. pp. 95- 113. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Laurie Ball (2010). “Social norms marketing aimed at gender based violence: A literature review and critical assessment.” New York: International Rescue Committee.

Paluck, E.L. (2007). “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict with the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda.” Yale University.

Prentice, Deborah A. (2008). “Mobilizing and Weakening Peer Influence as Mechanisms for Changing Behavior: Implications for Alcohol Intervention Programs.” In Prinstein, M.J., & Dodge, K.A. (Eds.). Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.


Who wants to work in Silicon Valley: Economist’s edition

I’m not sure if this is an entirely new phenomenon or I’m just more aware of it, but I’m incredibly intrigued by the proliferation of tech firms–start-ups, established big guys, gaming companies, and more–that are seeking to hire economists this year in various research roles. Maybe it’s not new, but rather what’s new is their move to advertise in the two established aggregated job listings that economics candidates are likely check these days.

Today’s job listing comes from Google, who is looking for someone to work in the are of Knowledge. With a capital K.

The area: Knowledge

There is always more information out there, and the Knowledge team has a never-ending quest to find it and make it accessible. We’re constantly refining our signature search engine to provide better results, and developing offerings like Google Instant, Google Voice Search and Google Image Search to make it faster and more engaging. We’re providing users around the world with great search results every day, but at Google, great just isn’t good enough. We’re just getting started.

It just sounds so much sexier than the academic jobs, no? Who doesn’t want to further knowledge?!

CSWEP Mentoring Breakfast at ASSA/AEA

This arrived in my mailbox this morning from my advisor. This is a great opportunity for junior economists to network and ask questions of senior economists at a variety of institutions.

The Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) is hosting its inaugural mentoring/networking breakfast for junior economists at the ASSA meetings on Sat., January 5 from 7-10 am. Senior economists (predominately senior women) will be on hand to provide mentoring and networking opportunities in an informal setting. A light continental breakfast will be provided.

Junior economists who have completed their PhD in the past 6 years or graduate students who are on the job market are encouraged to attend this event.

The event is an informal meet and greet affair in which junior participants are encouraged to drop in with questions on topics such as publishing, teaching, grant writing, networking, job search, career paths, and the tenure process. Senior economists who have committed to attend at least one hour of the breakfast are affiliated with institutions such as Duke, Texas, UCLA, Cornell, NY Federal Reserve, NSF, Lafayette College, UC-Santa Barbara, UC-San Diego, Iowa State, Maryland, Kentucky, Kansas, Agnes Scott College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgia Tech, Rutgers, Tufts, UT-Dallas, Missouri-St Louis, Indiana, and Colorado.

We are now accepting registration for junior participants.  To  pre-register, send an email to with the subject heading “CSWEP breakfast” containing your name, current institution and position title, year and institution of PhD.


The Committee for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession

The unit of analysis

Bill Easterly put a quote on his non-blog yesterday from a Jane Jacobs book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (now almost 30 years old) on the unit of analysis in development questions. It makes a case for considering other units of analysis than the nation.

Nations are political and military entities… But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth.

As a labor economist, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still an issue, but it seems necessary to reiterate even 30 years after Jacobs brought it up in her book. Though Easterly and Jacobs were talking about wealth and economics in particular, I think the insight is relevant for all kinds of decision making, and especially important when we’re talking about social norms (yes, I’m on a social norms kick–it doesn’t help that a friend told me last night that all my research was boring except for the social norms stuff. I’m here all night, folks).

At the risk of sounding like an echo, I was a bit taken aback last week how many of the people at the conference wanted to talk about scaling up to national level, how to effect change at a national level, and how to measure national-level social norms (some confusion around the term, here), even while admitting how watered down programs get at that level and how difficult it is to generalize across countries. Research suggests that reform and program implementation at that level are not very compatible with leveraging social norms for behavioral change due to lack of identification with the relevant social group (the nation).

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

Clarifying parodies of binders full of women

A few people who didn’t watch the debate told me this week that they didn’t understand my binders full of women reference in Friday’s post. The tumblr page was one of many internet parodies of a comment by Mitt Romney in last week’s debate regarding his concerted effort to hire more women as governor of Massachusetts. His request for “binders full of women”, or rather, binders full of female candidate’s portfolios, came in stark contrast to Obama’s very concrete support for the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Here’s a link from the Daily Beast explaining it a bit better. I foresee so many binder Halloween costumes this year.

A good read on the gender wage gap

I’m in London this week for a conference and had a very funny discussion at breakfast about blogging and the public element of putting one’s life on the internet. It reminded me that I haven’t been reading many blogs lately (or writing for that matter, sorry, I do still love you all), and prompted me to go visit a few of them after getting back from dinner this evening.

The particular blog I was discussing this morning was Chris Blattman’s, and I was pleased to find his post today included a link to Jordan Weissman’s “Why are women paid less?” at the Atlantic. Being on UK time, I missed the debate last night, but feel I’m getting caught up a bit with help from the above and other, very helpful, very serious news sources.

International Day of the Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl, the first Day of the Girl, in fact, as established by the United Nations. My twitter and inboxes are overflowing with tributes to girls, and links citing the value of empowering (one of my least favorite development buzzwords) girls, and reminders to check out various girl-positive campaigns. By coincidence or design, next week, I’m headed to London for a meeting on this very topic with DFID and Girl Hub. A coauthor and I have just finished a paper on using social norms interventions to reduce discrimination against and adverse treatment of adolescent girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that most programs aren’t studied with the rigor that would lead us be confident in definitive, causal effects. Worse, still, many of the programs we found seem more likely to reinforce social norms that make discriminatory behavior seem common or accepted (such as: people in this community marry off their girl children at an early age), which might justify discriminatory behavior or harmful practices. I cannot share the final product just yet, but hope to be able to by the end of November.

It also happens that today follows the shooting of a child education activist in Pakistan by the very anti-girl Taliban. Fourteen year-old Malala Yousufzai gained notoriety for her anonymous blog on education in Pakistan for the BBC and has become an outstanding spokesperson for gender equality and girls’ education in Pakistan. Former First Lady Laura Bush encourages all to speak out against such violence in the Washington Post and to support girls’ education and safety around the world. The New Yorker calls Malala “the girl who wanted to go to school” and gives a bit more background.

Now that I’ve depressed you, if you’re looking for something uplifting, I suggest reading a Meena comic book (this one, for example: Rosa_meena_Count_your_chickens). The Meena Communication Initiative is a social norms marketing program that’s been in place for almost 15 years all over Southeast Asia. It does a great job of encouraging gender-equitable behavior through community involvement without reinforcing stereotypes or emphasizing the prevalence of discrimination.

Below is a list of a few things I’ve found around the internet today on girls and International Day of the Girl. Updates forthcoming and suggestions welcome. Happy Day of the Girl!

The UN is taking this day to call for an end to child marriage, and World Learning reminds us that despite advances, there’s “still a long way to go.” TrustLaw Women highlights a program by ICWR and CARE-Ethiopia called Gatekeepers, which encourages community members to go door-to-door, educating their neighbors about the health consequences of child marriage.

Sipendi siasa or Governance Woes in East Africa

Today’s post comes to you from a very different part of the world and different part of academia. Ruth Carlitz is a graduate student at UCLA in Political Science and is in the early stages of her dissertation on governance and technology in East Africa. She’s also an East Africa rockstar, having lived there for a few years before graduate school, and continues to work with several on-the-ground development and governance projects in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. I had the pleasure of visiting Ruth while she was living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and she has had the good fortune to return several times since. She keeps me updated, so I thought she could update you all a bit, too, about what she is doing in that part of the world. Tomorrow, back to your regularly scheduled programming…  –EKF

As I stepped up to the customs counter in Dar Es Salaam, I put on a big smile, hoping that that my passable Swahili – and the fact that I wasn’t on an overpriced safari – would prompt someone to waive the $100 entry visa. I was only there for a few days, after all.

“Nasoma sayansi ya siasa!” I cheerily explained [I study political science].

“Sipendi siasa,” the paunchy, tired-looking customs official gruffly replied [I hate politics].

One hundred dollars later, I reflected on how his response gets at the heart of what I had been studying in Uganda and Tanzania this summer, and what I plan to explore further in my dissertation – namely, the promotion of ‘good governance’ by non-governmental actors.

While any number of factors has led to the decreasing popularity of traditional foreign aid, more and more development folks are focusing on governance reform.[1] The development community is coming around to the idea that poverty is largely a function of poor institutions and hence, reforming those institutions is the key to poverty reduction. Strategic interests may still rule the day, with governance reforms providing a fig leaf. However, I’m still curious to know what – if any – impact they are having.

I spent the past few months looking at how governance aid initiatives play out on the ground. In particular, I’m interested in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) to promote government accountability in East Africa. How do rising access to mobile phones, and less dramatic, but still noteworthy, increases in Internet access and innovation interact with governance and governance aid.

Over the past few months, I have been working with the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative (ATTI). ATTI supports organizations in Africa that encourage citizens to use technology to hold their leaders accountable by providing access to credible public information, influence, and stewardship of resources. I have been documenting the experience of two ATTI-supported projects in Uganda in order to identify and understand motivation for and barriers to participation. Understanding who participates in these initiatives has important implications for their ultimate impact on accountability, particularly in East Africa, where politics has long been characterized by clientelism and catering to special interests. For instance, if these new initiatives only ‘empower’ the usual suspects (people who are already participating actively – typically urban, educated, middle-class men) they may fail to realize their goals of making government more accountable to the broader public.

My preliminary analysis shows that there are indeed major barriers to participation in these new initiatives, some of which pertain to technology access, and others having to do with politics. Given that I study sayansi ya siasa [political science] rather that sayansi ya kompyuta [computer science], I’ll focus on the latter.

In many cases, it seems that the main barrier to participation is that potential users just don’t see the point. Like my friend the customs official, they would prefer to avoid politics. Why engage with a government that has been historically unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens? Why take time and money to do something with no guarantee of improving anything? Beyond such pragmatism, the ‘voiceless’ to whom such initiatives aim to give voice may have good reasons for staying silent in regimes with histories of restricting free speech.

Development practitioners and scholars, myself included, often expect people to jump at any chance to improve their lot, since the challenges they face are so pressing. This ignores the fact that people have their own strategies and coping mechanisms for dealing with hardship—be it poverty or corruption—and may not be so eager to change them.

My time with these organizations has underscored the importance of meeting people where they are – understanding why people do what they do, and how new solutions can be integrated into their existing ways of working. Organizations like ATTI, CIPESA and Twaweza are making a conscious effort to do this, but it remains a challenge.

[1] For a discussion of recent shifts in foreign aid delivery see: Simone Dietrich and Joseph Wright, “Foreign Aid Delivery and Democratic Consolidation in Africa,” Unpublished Manuscript. (2012): 1–40; Richard Nielsen and Daniel Nielson, “Triage for Democracy: Selection Effects in Governance Aid,” Prepared for Presentation at the Department of Government, College of William & Mary, 5 February 2010. (February 1, 2010): 1–41; S Claessens, D Cassimon, and B Van Campenhout, “Evidence on Changes in Aid Allocation Criteria,” The World Bank Economic Review 23, no. 2 (July 24, 2009): 185–208.

Related: Marc F. Bellemare writes about intrahousehold allocation of mobile phones. It matters who gets the phone depending on what your goals are!

Signaling and subconscious bias in Economics papers

I saw down this afternoon to read a paper on inheritance laws and gender for a paper on societal discrimination against adolescent girls. I found it through another paper that describes it as identifying a causal effect of allowing women to inherit land on educational attainment and age of marriage and so of course my econometric feelers went up. I was going to read it anyway, but you all know I’m glutton for seeking out statistical causal identification strategies. I’ve been putting off the paper because though the paper comes out of the World Bank’s Working Paper series, the cover page really wasn’t doing it for me.

I finally scrolled to the next page this afternoon, and it’s typed using LaTeX, a scientific word processing program. Wouldn’t you know that just seeing that font makes me that much more excited to read it? And, though I hate to admit it, maybe even a little more trusting of what’s coming, even though I haven’t read it yet?

Kind of scary. I would love to see a study of this over time. How is a paper typed in Word Perfect received versus a paper typed using a scientific editor?

Cited:  Deininger, K., A. Goyal, and H. Nagarajan (2010) “Inheritance Law Reform and Women’s Access to Capital: Evidence from India’s Hindu Succession Act.” Policy Research Working Paper 5338. Washington, DC: World Bank.