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  • Behavioral Regularities and Norm Stickiness: The Cases of Transracial Adoption and Online Privacy
  • Christine Horne (bio), Justine Tinkler (bio), and Wojtek Przepiorka (bio)

norms are rules about which there is some degree of consensus and that are socially enforced (Horne 2001).1 Norms can mandate, encourage, allow, discourage, and forbid behaviors. When norms are in place, people expect others to react negatively to violations and positively to compliance (Horne 2009). Thus norms can be conceptualized as expectations about the social acceptability of behaviors. We refer to such expectations as normative expectations (Bicchieri 2017). While some scholars have identified factors that contribute to the emergence of new norms (Coleman 1990; Ullmann-Margalit 1977), researchers still understand relatively little about how norms change.

We argue that behavioral regularities help explain norm change and stability. Whatever the reason for a particular pattern of behavior, that pattern affects people’s normative expectations regarding how others are likely to react (Horne 2009; Willer, Kuwabara, and Macy 2009). So, if there is a persistent pattern of behavior (whatever [End Page 93] the cause of that pattern), people would expect others to approve of the behavior. And if behaviors change, then people would expect others to approve of the new behavior. The implication is that there is a feedback loop—patterns of behavior lead to normative expectations that, in turn, affect behavior.

We test our argument using two vignette experiments that describe very different substantive contexts. The first focuses on segregation in intimate family relationships. In the United States, despite widespread norms favoring colorblindness and integration, racial segregation remains widespread in most social arenas. We test whether manipulating levels of segregation in a community affects people’s normative expectations about transracial adoption, and in turn, their evaluations of potential transracial adoptive parents.

The second experiment focuses on online privacy. Although there is widespread concern about privacy and unease about the potential for increases in privacy violations, people nonetheless tend to use potentially privacy-violating technology. We test whether manipulating the frequency with which people use such technology affects individuals’ normative expectations regarding privacy, and in turn, their interest in using the technology.

Thus the two experiments are set in different empirical contexts—one in which norms have changed while behavior has not, and a second in which behavior is changing rapidly and norms appear to be lagging. In both contexts, we find that behavioral regularities affect normative expectations, and, in turn, decisions that are consistent with those regularities. We discuss the implications of our theory for understanding persistent racial segregation and Trump-era race norms, as well as contradictions between widespread concerns about privacy and individuals’ privacy-related behaviors. Our theory contributes to understanding of variation in the “stickiness” of norms.


As described above, norms are rules that are socially enforced. When norms are in place, people expect negative reactions to violations. [End Page 94] Descriptive norms are behavioral regularities, reflected in people’s perceptions of what most others do (Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren 1990).

In any social situation, people seek to determine the appropriate course of action—those behaviors that are socially acceptable. To do so, they look for clues to help. One source of clues is descriptive norms. Research suggests that norms are affected by existing patterns of behavior (Diekmann and Przepiorka 2016; Opp 2004), in particular, normative expectations regarding the behaviors that others approve (Horne 2009; Willer, Kuwabara, and Macy 2009). This is because people rely on others’ behavior to infer what those others think about that behavior. In turn, these normative expectations have implications for individual decisions. Individuals comply with what they think others will approve and avoid behaviors they think others will disapprove—thereby perpetuating descriptive norms. Below, we consider the implications of this argument for two substantively important domains—race relations and online privacy.

Segregation and Transracial Adoption

Race relations are a useful substantive context in which to explore norm change because of the disjuncture between norms downplaying the significance of race and persistent patterns of racial segregation. US norms mandate a colorblind approach to race. Since the mid-twentieth century it has become increasingly unacceptable to say that one racial group is inferior to another (Bonilla-Silva...


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pp. 93-113
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