Understanding Conformity: An Experimental Investigation

by B. Douglas Bernheim & Christine Exley

Overview — When psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists (as well as some economists) theorize about social conformity, they see individuals’ preferences as fluid and subject to a variety of social influences. Economic models of conformity, however, tend to focus on how individuals update their beliefs and assume that preferences are more or less fixed and immutable. The researchers conducted laboratory experiments to explore different aspects of conformity. Taken together, results imply that the economics literature has to date focused too narrowly on explanations for conformity.

Author Abstract

Some theories of conformity hold that social equilibrium either standardizes inferences or promotes a shared understanding of conventions and norms among individuals with fixed heterogeneous preferences (belief mechanisms). Others depict tastes as fluid and hence subject to social influences (preference mechanisms). Belief mechanisms dominate discussions of conformity within economics, but preference mechanisms receive significant attention in other social sciences. This paper seeks to determine whether conformity is attributable to belief mechanisms or preference mechanisms by exploiting their distinctive implications for the process of convergence. Laboratory experiments suggest that economists have focused too narrowly on explanations for conformity involving belief mechanisms. Keywords: Conformity; Norms; Image Motivation; Prosocial Behavior

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