Thursday, December 8, 2011

social norms, morality, and psychology

Social norms are fundamentally multiple-equilibrium outcomes. In a given context, some outcome (how much to give to charity, what the housework/schoolwork balance for kids should be, what age defines adulthood, how to treat animals, rules for dating, rules for hygiene, rules for hospitality, the list is endless) somehow is chosen as the equilibrium norm, through some process that is not well understood. Then through some other process that is only becoming well-understood currently, this norm is enforced and perpetuated organically.

The best candidate for that process is, essentially, social- and self- image. We obey norms because we want to be seen, and see ourselves, as good people who obey norms, or to avoid the punishment that comes from breaking them.

But, inevitably, the line between "good" and "conformist" and between "caring about being good" and "caring about being seen as good" is blurred. This is partially because there are certain situations in which we think there is something like an absolute morality. In these contexts (random cold-blooded murder, for example), every society has the same equilibrium norm. Then there are other situations where there's near consensus, like monogamy, or rape, or violence towards women, etc. And other situations where there's a little less consensus, like marital fidelity or child labor. And this continuum of consensus continues all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum where norms of formal dress or small talk lie.

Within this smooth continuum, it's hard to tell exactly how much of a social norm is an arbitrary equilibrium choice and how much is a result of absolute morality. Even on the far end of the spectrum, we can plausibly say that it's morally wrong to ignore arbitrary norms of dress, because of the destructive disruption it can cause, or some such explanation.

In addition to this fundamental ambiguity that leads people to forget about the arbitrary aspect of norms, the moral motivation for adhering to any norm is often reinforced since the easiest way to keep the masses in line is to keep them from thinking too much about the rightness or wrongness of an action and simply prescribe a code of behavior as morally absolute. Sure, religion and other ethical codes don't usually dictate behavior in the realm of workplace attire, but they reinforce the moral interpretation of norms overall. Soon, the arbitrariness is forgotten (or never realized to begin with, after enough the moral rhetoric prevails for enough generations.)

This may keep society functioning in an orderly manner, but the sword cuts both ways. The more we motivate our actions by telling ourselves that it's the right thing to do, the more we interpret others actions likewise. Thus, a friend's gaffe is interpreted (usually not illegitimately - I'm describing a rational expectations equilibrium here) as a lack of concern about being a good person, rather than simply lack of concern for social signaling, or a reasoned objection to the governing norm, or a reasoned situational deviation from that norm.

In a society where we are already so overly preoccupied with self-analysis and psychology and we overthink  every action and reaction in our friendships and relationships, we don't need to feed the naval-gazing by making it even harder to remember not to jump to conclusions of malice. Remember that norms are flexible and definitely not always agreed on. Clarify expectations when that potential disagreement might lead to misunderstanding and hurt. Clarify intentions after the fact. Give the benefit of a doubt.

Well, that was a long way around to that point :)

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