Laws and perceptions of social norms: lessons from confinement


In order to promote social distancing to contain the spread of Covid-19, governments have put in place strict regulations. This column uses interviews before the March 23 announcement of a nationwide lockdown in the UK and after the announcement to show that the introduction of the new laws affected perceptions of social norms regarding the various lockdown measures – that is, what people thought the prevailing standards were. This appears to have been the result of fewer misperceptions about social norms after the introduction of the laws, rather than real changes in social norms.

In large groups, cooperation between individuals cannot usually be based solely on their goodwill and is often ensured through laws. For example, in order to promote social distancing in the context of the current pandemic, governments have introduced strict regulations and have relied heavily on the use of fines. Under what circumstances should we expect the laws to successfully support cooperation? This is a long-standing question in the social sciences, where different approaches have emerged. While the traditional approach to law and economics (Becker 1968) emphasizes the effects of incentives in the form of sanctions, recent literature in behavioral science and legal studies points out that intangible factors and norms social policies play a central role in explaining individual respect for the law (Zamir and Teichman 2018).

In particular, laws can have the “expressive function” of inducing cooperation by changing the perceived social norm – that is, what people think is the dominant norm. In Galbiati et al. (2020), we are taking advantage of the containment measures put in place to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic to provide causal proof that the laws do indeed affect the perception of social norms. We focus on the case of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown on the evening of March 23, 2020. This framework has several key features that we can exploit to study the causal effect laws on perceptions of the social norm. First, the law’s implementation came as a relative surprise, representing a sea change in strategy from a government that had previously signaled strong reservations about total lockdowns. Second, the law was far reaching, including several different policies – such as lockdowns and store closings – which had typically been implemented more gradually in other countries. Based on UK mobility data, we show that the law had an immediate impact on mobility, for example by reducing trips to parks by 30%.

Based on survey data (Fetzer et al. 2020), we study the evolution of perceived standards induced by this shock on British legal rules. The data contains information on perceived social norms (i.e. We focus on the daily responses of those interviewed before the lockdown announcement on March 23 with those interviewed after the announcement. social norm are controlled by comparing this change over time to the change on the same days for respondents living in a set of control countries. Figure 1 shows the results of the analysis of the corresponding event study. figure shows that the announcement of the lockdown dramatically increased the likelihood that individuals would think their compatriots were considering staying home, closing shops and not participating positively in social gatherings. The effect is very large, representing by example a 15 percentage point increase in the belief that other people think home support measures should be followed. The effect is strongest for the establishment of a general curfew and the closing of stores; it is weaker for social gatherings and positive but only small and, for the most part, insignificant for the “no handshake” policy.

Figure 1 Temporal pattern of perceived social norms in the UK and in the control group

Based on the framework introduced by Benabou and Tirole (2011), there are two main explanations for such a change in the perception of social norms: on the one hand, social norms themselves might have changed, since the law has changed. changed incentives; on the other hand, the law could be used to learn more about the prevalent social norm if there is a misperception about it. Notably, the two explanations differ as to whether the social norm actually changes. To disentangle the two, we construct a measure of actual social norms by exploiting an additional survey question asking respondents for their personal norm (i.e. whether they think people should comply with the policy) . If the information on the dominant social norm is perfect, the population average of personal norms should equal the average perception of the social norm.

Figure 2 Before and after comparing misperceptions in the UK

The left panel in Figure 2 shows that before March 23, perceptions of social norm were significantly lower than the norm itself for most dimensions, with the exception of the handshake where the deviation was much lower. The right panel shows that after March 23, this misperception gap decreases sharply. To determine whether this change in misperception can be attributed to laws passed at the time of the UK foreclosure decision, Figure 3 reproduces the event study on the measure of misperception. The figure confirms a strong effect of the law on misperceptions. This set of results suggests that the most plausible channel is that the law changed perceptions of the social norm without actually changing the norm itself (which is confirmed by further statistical analysis of the effect of confinement on average personal standards). In fact, for the handshake – the dimension where misperceptions were initially weakest – the law had virtually no effect on perceptions of the social norm.

figure 3 Temporal pattern of misperceptions in the UK and in the control group

From a political point of view, these results imply that the design of laws should take into account their effect on the perceived norm: people will not only react to newly implemented material incentives, but will also internalize the norm expressed by the law. While our results suggest that an important channel for such interaction is the informational content of the applicable Standard Act, it should be noted that the UK had several characteristics that favored this information channel. First, the population was initially pessimistic about the prevailing norm, as indicated by the large misperception gap before March 23, leaving room for new information to affect beliefs. Second, law enforcement was weaker than in other countries, decreasing the potential for direct impact on social standards themselves.

The references

Benabou, R and J Tirole (2011), “Laws and Norms”, NBER Working Paper 17579.

Becker, G (1968), “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach”, The political economy journal 76: 169-217.

Fetzer, T, M Witte, L Hensel et al. (2020), “Perceptions of an insufficient government response at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are associated with lower mental well-being,” PsyArXiv, April 16.

Galbiati, R, E Henry, N Jacquemet and M Lobeck (2020), “How Laws Affect the Perception of Norms: Empirical Evidence from the Lockdown”, CEPR Discussion Paper 15119.

McAdams, RH (2017), The expressive powers of law: theories and limits, Harvard University Press.

Zamir, E and D Teichman (2018), Conduct and economics law, Oxford University Press.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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