Why Towns Conform

Imagine a group with a social norm against spitting on the sidewalk. If this group is very small, then everyone should know everyone well, and any one act of spitting will have only a small influence on how people think about the spitting person. A consistent habit of spitting might cost you, but any one spit would not.  If the group is very large, there is also little risk that any one spitting will result in an informal social sanction. You’ll probably never meet the strangers who see it again, and they probably don’t know each other, so why should anyone make a fuss? At an intermediate scale, however, spitters should fear that any one act of spitting will produce a widespread rumor about this act, making folks who know them only moderately avoid them after hearing this rumor.  Why deal with someone if you have other options and the main thing you know about him or her is negative?

In general, social norms are enforced via two key informal mechanisms:

  1. When norms are usually followed, rare violators are often undesirable in objective ways. They may lack intelligence or self-control, for example. So people avoid violating such norms to avoid sending bad signals about themselves.
  2. Meta-norms often require observers of norm violations to punish violators, such as by refusing to associate with them. This includes observers of a failure to punish a failure to punish, and so on.

These two mechanisms play out differently on three different social scales:

  • Foragers only interacted with a hundred or so others, all of whom they know in great detail.
  • Farmers lived in larger social networks of roughly thousands of folks near enough by to matter. This is small enough for rumors to tell most everyone about big norm violations, but too big for everyone to know everyone well.
  • Today we live in communities so big that, outside of smaller networks of neighbors or coworkers, rumors only reliably tell everyone about extreme norm violations.  Informal rumors will not tell most people you deal with about your norm violations.

These two norm enforcers seem to work best at intermediate social scales. Signaling discourages norm violations best when people that matter tend to hear about norm violations, but know little else about violators. At a smaller scale one norm violation will add only a small amount to what observers know about that person, and at a larger scale observers will probably not have heard about the norm violation. But inbetween, observers will prefer to avoid someone when they know little else besides one bad sign.

Meta-norms to punish non-punishers also work best at an intermediate social scale. At a very small scale, when few observers see each violation, observers can coordinate to avoid the meta-norm of punishment; “let’s not and say we did.” Punishment can be expensive, after all.  At a very large scale, you many care little about the opinions of those who happen to see you fail to punish a non-punisher.  But at intermediate scales, a single bad signal can induce a strong shunning reaction. Why take a risk on a near stranger with a big negative strike against them?

The fact that norms are enforced best at an intermediate social density helps explain why higher-density farmers had stronger social norms than lower-density foragers, and yet even higher-density modern folk have reverted back to a weaker forager-like level of norm enforcement.

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  • I’ve also been thinking a lot about the breakdown of social norm enforcement as people live in larger communities. One thing to note, however, is that cities are very old, and people have been living in groups larger than Dunbar’s number throughout the period in which modern social norms were invented. The breakdown of social norms is a recent development (by historical time), but our cities haven’t gotten that much bigger on the monkeybrain scale: Victorian London was of such a scale that you didn’t have to deal with the same people twice if you didn’t want to, and you’d think the norm-destroying conditions of urban anonymity would be in place. Except, they were somehow in a high-norm-enforcement equilibrium.

    I would argue that rather than larger group size, it’s increased mobility and the weakening of non-familial institutions have increased the amount of anonymity moderns enjoy. Churches, professional guilds, and social clubs brought social networks down to a Dunbar-neighborhood number, and membership functioned as a signal that you were part of a group capable of enforcing social norms, and hence respectable. (On this count, it’s possible that some outside force destroyed both clubs and norm enforcement, but the contemporaneous decline of both seems significant to me.)

    • Doug S.

      The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

      – Socrates, as quoted by Plato

      • That statement would be equally persuasive whether or not social norm enforcement is in fact in decline. Its truth value is therefore minimal.

  • Dear Robin:

    One social norm that you should try to follow more is to work harder to give the impression that you realize that not every thought you have is original. At minimum, try putting in blog posts near the beginning a phrase like “As has often been pointed out …” when you are discussing widely understood concepts like the fact that it’s harder to get away with stuff in villages than in cities. That way you can proceed to whatever new idea you actually have without alienating readers.


  • Peter, its not clear how feasible it was for cities to develop their own distinct norms when most of their residents had recently come from elsewhere.

    Steve, I’ve certainly heard that others had noted that cities enforce norms worse than towns. But I’ve never heard that small band also enforce norms more weakly. I have no idea if that observation is original or not.

  • blink

    Does the weakness of norm enforcement at the modern large city level account for the attraction of “smaller networks” and organizations like churches, guilds, and clubs that Peter mentions? Are we seeking out farmer-size groups even while adopting forager-like views on a larger scale?

    Also, there may be a trend toward a small number of focal norms in larger groups (recycling perhaps?) whereas farmer-size groups could support a larger variety of norms. If so, it does not follow that norms are less important in larger groups.

    • Miguel Madeira

      My impression is that these “social networks” are usually more “foragers-size” than “farmers-size”.

  • K

    Wouldn’t violations be more severely penalized in a forager society since it is literally a matter of life and death? I’d think the norms and meta-norms in a herder-farmer society are based on more social rather than survival pressures and hence would be weaker.

    From a non-evolutionary view point, another reason why norm violations may be punished more strictly in a small group (say family) than in a medium sized group (apartment bldg) is that we play a iterated game in these environments, and memory is longer and iterations are quicker in the smaller group.

    I think it would be better to disentangle the evolutionary pressures from social pressures which make up the norm-enforcing mechanisms.

    Also, today, note that minor misdemeanours have long-range and long-term impact, due to the spread of the internet and the social web. Notice the steady increase of articles and books which advise you how to manage your past indiscretions in personal life or career.

  • At the point where one is equating knowing everyone intimately with not knowing anyone at all, it seems the analogy must necessarily break down.

    Of course, I have already pointed out in a previous comment on an eariler posting that you are really only comparing the three communitarianist psychologies, which are all going to have strong resemblances to each other for that very reason. You are leaving out the individualist social psychologies of the ancient Athenian democracy and of classical liberalism. The first emerges with the rise of farmers, it is true, but you seem to be conflating their psychologies with that of the monotheist authoritative psychology dominant among the ancient Jews, the Medieval Christians, and many contemporary Middle Eastern Muslims. They are quite different, though a healthy dose of the former in the latter can make the latter behave in some pretty nasty ways. Classical liberalism is a response to the paradoxes in authoritative psychology coming to a head. Neither of your categories seem to capture this psychology in the least.

  • Peter St. Onge

    Key question is whether farmers have ‘stronger’ norms, or simply ‘more’ norms. ‘More’ seems a good candidate: higher productivity -> more resources left for norm industry.

    My strong bayesian is foragers have at least equally ‘strong’ norms – belief in curses, black magic, evil eyes, at least equal propensity for vendettas, honor-killings, etc.

    Probability-adjusted punishment would actually predict ‘stronger’ norms among less dense people. I think the modern city is more a matter of lowered consequences to violation as a result of higher incomes.

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  • Jordan

    Am I the only one to whom this post smacks of this description of phlogiston theory? This is just my knee-jerk reaction talking here, but it feels like you’re stretching a little too hard to make this essay work.

    While I think the degradation at the high end of the population density scale is adequate, I propose a different – though perhaps equally-forced – mechanism for the transition from low to medium:

    As a poor Forager, you do what you need to do to survive; everyone understands this, and there are very few social norms at all except those that really, really matter. People in survival situations often have trouble behaving rationally because they’re not comfortable with instantly shirking a huge number of social norms in their shift to an extremely low available population – a theme often played-with in fiction during e.g. a zombie crisis, or being lost in a desert.

    As a Farmer in a moderate environment, you are afforded ways to attempt to elevate yourself socially. Ornamentation becomes a way to specifically signal to what degree one need not concern oneself with mere survival. Ornamentation can be long fingernails and gold; it can also be the accumulation of etiquette. In addition to this, you are afforded more leeway for behaviors which serve only purely psychological purposes and are objectively quite inefficient in terms of maximizing food energy available.

    This effect at the lower shift and the one in the article at the higher shift can be considered two unconnected forces with ramifications at vastly different scales. As an example, I present the arbitrary norm-observance function to population variable x: f(x) = 1000x – x²

    What I prefer about this explanation is that it more cleanly fits into the supposition that we are Forager people by default, that is to say preferentially, where we only favor forming and favoring norms when we have enough food to not be desperate to survive, but still low-enough populations that the anonymity effect doesn’t kick in. Under the OP model, on the other hand, we are Farmer-type norm-followers by default, but simply empathize too strongly with others at low populations. This requires additional explanation for why we appear to prefer to be Farmers but are Foragers at low populations, prefer to be Farmers and are so at medium populations, and prefer to be Foragers and are so at large populations. If you venture such explanations, it would be conscientious of you to affix a dotted line with a label reading “APPLY OCCAM’S RAZOR HERE”.

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