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  • Social Norms Change: Believing Makes It So
  • Gerry Mackie (bio)

how do we change harmful social practices, abandon old social norms, and/or adopt beneficial new ones? Two key maxims apply:

  • • enough people have to believe that enough other people are changing, and

  • • seeing is believing.


A brute fact, such as Yosemite Falls, exists whether or not anyone believes that it does; an institutional fact (including social norms), such as a marriage, exists if and only if enough relevant people believe that it does (Searle 1995).

Social norms originate in capacities of joint attention and pretend play that emerge in the first years of human life (Schmidt and Tomasello 2012). Joint attention begins with the infant calling the attention of the caretaker to an object, such that both infant and caretaker jointly attend to it. The capacity expands and becomes more abstract with age: four young children play a board game together and know that each of them plays the game; a basketball team acts together as a team and its members know that they do, as does the opposing team; the audience in the arena watches the game and knows that others there are watching the same thing; the television audience watches knowing that many faceless others are watching. The matured capacity for joint attention makes possible the reference group of a social norm: for something like the decision to breastfeed, a few [End Page 141] close family members; for something like whether to drive on the right or the left, the entire population of a country.

Studies show that young children are quite adept at pretend play. They are aware that it is play and not real; they can designate an object to serve as a plate in one scenario and a hat in another, and switch back and forth between games without confusion, and chastise experimenters who feign to break the pretend rules. A piece of paper is money in the pretend game if everyone in the game believes that it is; Issa is queen if everyone in the game believes that she is. The same capacities are applied among adults in situations with far more serious stakes. An Italian lira is money only if enough people believe that it is, but is no longer money when enough people believe that the Euro is money instead. England’s Richard II was king until enough people believed that he could not continue in that normally lifelong role and he was deposed by social consensus. A harmful social norm exists because enough people believe that it exists, and a beneficial social norm can be adopted if enough believe that it is adopted. In one way, social norms are very easy to change (or establish), but in another way they are very hard to change because of the need to get enough people to coordinate on the change.

A social norm is a rule constructed from an individual’s beliefs and evaluations: her beliefs about what others do (descriptive norm), her beliefs about what others dis/approve of (injunctive norm), and her evaluation about whether what certain others do and dis/approve of is enough reason for her to comply (reference group). A subjective and methodologically individualist construal of social norms is nowadays common (Mackie et al. 2016). It avoids many confusions, and by showing the mechanics of how a social norm is maintained also shows us the mechanics of change. Some who are influenced by older ideas of social norms functionally emanating from a reified “society” worry that this construal is atomistic and merely cognitive, but it is resolutely social by inclusion of believed relations to others in the reference group (which can be left vague or be exactly specified), and [End Page 142] it is a mistake to consider a belief-desire explanation of human action as merely cognitive.

Typically, people’s beliefs about the relevant reference group, what others do and dis/approve of, overlap such that there is an interdependence of beliefs and actions among them with respect to the social norm. Some actions are largely independent of the actions of others, such as, for example, one person rowing a boat. Other...


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pp. 141-166
Launched on MUSE
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