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Why Even Terrible Social Norms Are Hard to Change

We might have to change whose behavior and whose judgments we pay attention to.

Sometimes we can end up reinforcing a norm in the course of trying to condemn it.

Think about the #MeToo / #TimesUp movements, which aim to expose and put an end to sexual harassment and sexual assault. While they have demonstrated how widespread the phenomena are, this can unfortunately backfire because behavior can appear more legitimate when it is known to be common. These movements have also asserted that sexual harassment and sexual assault are wrong, and must stop. This is critical—but for it to have an effect it needs to matter to the people whose behavior must change.

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Social norms are sustained when they are reinforced by two things: the belief that most other people engage in behavior that is consistent with the norm, and the belief that other people think of this behavior as right or acceptable (for more on this, see work by Cristina Bicchieri, such as Norms in the Wild). For instance, there are norms around recycling, and cheating on taxes, and punishing children by hitting them. When I judge (consciously or not) whether to recycle or to throw out my plastic bottle; whether to be honest or to lie on my tax forms; whether to gently reprimand or to strike my disobedient child, both of these factors—what others do and what others think ought to be done—will influence me. I will register how many other people regularly recycle, how common it is to cheat a little on taxes, or what the typical way is to discipline children. I will also take into consideration (again, this might be done consciously or not) what other people think is right: will I get a nasty look for tossing my bottle in the garbage? do other people agree with me that it’s okay to skimp on taxes? what do others think is the best way to treat a child? We shape our own behavior and our own judgments in response to both what other people do and what they think is right to do. These aren’t the only factors that influence us—for instance, in the case of how we treat our children, love and empathy might give us a strong internal sense of the wrongness of beating our children, even if others around us do it and approve of it.

But there’s a catch: my sense of which norms are mine—which norms are binding on me—depends on who the people are that matter to me: whose behavior do I take into consideration when I ask what other “people” do? Whose approvals and disapprovals, or moral judgments, matter to me when I ask what other “people” think is the right thing to do? Who belongs to the circle of people whom I take to be relevant to which norms are binding on me—who is in my “reference network”—makes a difference.

Let’s apply this information about how norms change to the issue of sexual harassment and assault. There are competing norms to consider. There are norms that are sustained by the fact that many people (mostly men) do sexually harass and assault others (mostly women) and take much of this behavior to be appropriate. The norms against sexual harassment and assault have been insufficiently effective so far. What should we expect to be the effect of the #MeToo / #TimesUp movements on these competing norms?

Whether and in what way a person is influenced by these movements depend crucially on who is in that person’s reference network. Imagine a young man who is developing a sense of what the right way is for him to treat women. The norms that will most strongly influence him are the norms of some social group—the people who matter to him in this respect. Part of what he will learn from the sheer number of women who are proclaiming “Me Too” is that a large number of men are engaging in a certain behavior. This may reinforce the young man’s sense that such behavior is acceptable if the harassers and assaulters are the people whom he takes to be the ones to set the norm. He might also infer from the ubiquity of the behavior that the same set of men approve of their own and each other’s behavior. Again, this can reinforce its permissibility.

At the same time, a large number of women (and some men) are denouncing sexual harassment and assault, and declaring—“Time’s Up”—that it won’t be tolerated any more. If these women’s judgments matter to the young man, this can be a powerful force in his developing a sense that these behaviors are wrong. But it all depends on who matters to him—whose behavior, and whose views about what is right and wrong, matter to him.

Some men remark that having a daughter has made them realize how detrimental sexual harassment and assault are for girls and women. In other words, there is finally one individual female who matters to them and whom they realize is vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. And while I understand and appreciate this care for their own daughters, there is also something sad about it: it means that nothing else had previously compelled them to take women into consideration at all; the norms that they took themselves to be bound by were norms sustained by the behavior of other men, and by other men’s judgments about what constituted acceptable behavior. Women who were hurt by, and who condemned, sexual harassment and assault were not in their reference network.

If the norms around sexual harassment and sexual assault are to change, we must understand what such change takes: there are plenty of people out there who condemn (and don’t engage in) sexual harassment and assault. Are these people among those who matter to your sense of which norms bind you?


Bicchieri, Cristina. 2017. Norms In the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms. New York: Oxford University Press.

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