Social norms influence human behavior. For example, when people are in a social setting and are unsure of what to do, they may observe or ask about others’ behavior to determine what’s desirable or accepted. Our proposal rests on the idea that social norms can be harnessed to promote virtue. We employ a novel framework for investigating the power of social norms, combining approaches employed by our cross-disciplinary team (e.g., psychology, engineering, economics, philosophy, sociology).
Our project addresses a set of interrelated questions about the impact of social norms on virtue. How do virtue advocates inspire others through their actions? How can people be encouraged to freely live out their values? The project aims to understand and address a pair of problems complicating these questions. First, when people enact public virtue, observers can infer ulterior motives, i.e., reputation signaling. Second, as a result, people can worry about how their own actions will be perceived by others: e.g., will people think I am doing good only in order to look good? This project will test a novel theoretical account contrasting perceptions of reputation signaling with perceptions of norm signaling, i.e., genuine attempts to exert positive influence on others.
The underlying assumption is that freeing people to enact virtue has not only intrinsic benefit but also broader social impact for others around the virtuous agent: others may be influenced by social norms inferred from public acts of virtue. Our project thus aims to further investigate the features of social norms that shape people’s virtue, in terms of actions and attitudes, and to reveal how new virtuous norms can replace less virtuous norms. The studies will establish the enduring impact of social norms communicated through institutional practice, and develop a rich understanding of virtuous norm change across virtues and applied contexts.