Social Norms

The power of social norms to constrain individual behavior depends on others’ compliance. The concepts of conditional cooperation and collective ignorance as to others’ breaking of rules have been shown to strongly guide people’s adherence to social norms.

I base my research on social norms on lab, online, field, and natural experiments. As norm-compliance is context-dependent, I am interested in how local socio-economic conditions and strategies learned in daily interaction influence outcomes of social experiments. Bringing context into controlled experiments is particularly relevant for sociological research which—unlike most experimental research in economics and psychology—fully acknowledges the importance of context effects in a multi-level explanation of individual action.

Online experiments in particular provide a sorely needed complement to laboratory research, transporting a homogeneous decision situation into various living conditions. I use crowdsourced online designs to capitalize on the diverse characteristics people bring into the experimental situation. Also, I rely on unobtrusive field experiments to study norm compliance and normative change in the face of, for example, observable signals of others’ deviant behavior.


Thou Shalt Recycle: How Social Norms of Environmental Protection Narrow the Scope of the Low-Cost Hypothesis.” Environment and Behavior, Online First.

According to the “low-cost hypothesis” (LCH), attitudes explain behavior only if complying with personal convictions requires little effort. Environmental research has seized this argument to explain moderate participation in pro-environmental action against a backdrop of rising environmental awareness. However, evidence for the LCH remains ambiguous and recent studies have reported contradictory results. Fabian Kratz and me reconcile prior findings on household waste recycling and argue that many environmental behaviors evolved into every day, “normal” practices increasingly encouraged by social norms, and thus slip out of the LCH’s scope. We combine a natural experiment exploiting households’ variation in geocoded walking distances to drop-off recycling sites in Munich, Germany (N=754) with an independent online survey (N=640) measuring local intensities of recycling norms for two distinct waste categories, plastics and glass. Our results suggest that normative change narrows the LCH’s scope to include only environmental action for which normative expectations are weak.


Disorder, Social Capital, and Norm Violation: Three Field Experiments on the Broken Windows Thesis.” Rationality and Society 27(1):96–126.

This joint work with Tobias Wolbring adds to the debate about the “broken windows” thesis. We discuss an explanation of minor norm violation based on the assumption that individuals infer expected sanctioning probabilities from contextual cues. We modify the classical framework of rational crime by signals of disorder, local social control, and their interaction. Testing our implications we present results from three field experiments showing that violations of norms, which prevent physical as well as social disorder, foster further violations of the same and of different norms. Varying the net gains from deviance it shows that disorder effects are limited to low-cost situations. Moreover, we provide suggestive evidence that disorder effects are significantly stronger in neighborhoods with high social capital. This paper received the Robert-K-Merton-Award in 2017 and the Anatol-Rapoport-Award in 2014.


Using Crowdsourced Online Experiments to Study Context-dependency of Behavior.” Social Science Research 59:68-82.

We use Mechanical Turk’s diverse participant pool to conduct online bargaining games in India and the US. Together with my co-authors Felix Bader and Johannes Bracher I first assess the internal validity of crowdsourced experimentation through a variation of stakes ($0, $1, $4, and $10) in the Ultimatum and Dictator Game. For cross-country equivalence we adjust the stakes following differences in purchasing power. Our marginal totals correspond closely to laboratory findings. Monetary incentives induce more selfish behavior but, in line with most laboratory findings, the particular size of a positive stake appears irrelevant. Second, by transporting a homogeneous decision situation into various living conditions crowdsourced experimentation permits identification of context effects on elicited behavior. We explore context-dependency using session-level variation in participants’ geographical location, regional affluence, and local social capital. Across “virtual pools” behavior varies in the range of stake effects.We argue that quasi-experimental variation of the characteristics people bring to the experimental situation is the key potential of crowdsourced online designs.


The Dark Side of Leadership: An Experiment on Religious Heterogeneity and Cooperation in India.” Journal of Socio-Economics 48:19–26.

In this field-like lab experiment, I investigate together with Jan Schikora the voluntary contribution to public goods in culturally heterogeneous groups with a laboratory experiment conducted among 432 Hindu and Muslim subjects in India. With our specification of “Leading by example” we test for an interaction effect between leadership and religious heterogeneity in a high stake environment. While cultural diversity does not affect contributions in the standard linear Public Goods Game, it reduces cooperation in the presence of a leader. Furthermore, we show that preferences for conditional cooperation are only prevalent in pure groups. In mixed groups, poor leadership and uncertainty about followers’ reciprocity hinders the functionality of leadership as an institutional device to resolve social dilemmas.