American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 115, No. 2, 451–490.
Robb Willer, Ko Kuwabara, Michael W. Macy
Prevailing theory assumes that people enforce norms in order to
pressure others to act in ways that they approve. Yet there are
numerous examples of “unpopular norms” in which people compel each
other to do things that they privately disapprove. While peer
sanctioning suggests a ready explanation for why people conform to
unpopular norms, it is harder to understand why they would enforce
a norm they privately oppose. The authors argue that people enforce
unpopular norms to show that they have complied out of genuine
conviction and not because of social pressure. They use laboratory
experiments to demonstrate this “false enforcement” in the context of a
wine tasting and an academic text evaluation. Both studies find that
participants who conformed to a norm due to social pressure then
falsely enforced the norm by publicly criticizing a lone deviant. A
third study shows that enforcement of a norm effectively signals the
enforcer’s genuine support for the norm. These results demonstrate the
potential for a vicious cycle in which perceived pressures to conform
to and falsely enforce an unpopular norm reinforce one another.
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