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Social Norms and Economic Theory

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Type: Journal Article
Author: Elster, Jon
Journal: Journal of Economic Perspectives
Volume: 3
Date: 1989
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/3264
Sector: Social Organization
Subject(s): social organization--theory
economic theory
Abstract: "Social norms must be distinguished from a number of other, related phenomena. First, social norms differ from moral norms. Some moral norms, like those derived from utilitarian ethics, are consequentialist. Secondly, social norms differ from legal norms. Legal norms are enforced by specialists who do so out of self-interest: they will lose their job if they don't. By contrast, social norms are enforced by members of the general community, and not always out of self-interest (see below). Thirdly, social norms are more than the convention equilibria described in Robert Sugden's accompanying article. As Sugden explains, the evolution of a convention equilibrium is guided by whether the conventions lead to a substantively better outcome. I argue below, however, that many social norms do not benefit anyone. Fourthly, social norms differ from private norms, the self-imposed rules that people construct to overcome weakness of will (Ainslie 1982, 1984, 1986). Private norms, like social norms, are non-outcome-oriented and sustained by feelings of anxiety and guilt. They are not, however, sustained by the approval and disapproval of others since they are not, or not necessarily, shared with others. Finally, norm-guided behavior must be distinguished from habits and compulsive neuroses. Unlike social norms, habits are private. Unlike private norms, their violation does not generate self-blame or guilt. Unlike neuroses and private norms, habits are not compulsive. Unlike social norms, compulsive neuroses are highly idiosyncratic. Yet what in one culture looks like a compulsive neurosis may, in another society, be an established social norm (Fenichel 1945, p. 586). Compulsive revenge behavior could be an example (Djilas, 1958)."

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