Robin Hanson’s blog, Overcoming Bias, casts a pretty wide net. His October 6th post was of particular interest because he talks about norms and social networks. In a nutshell, as a community grows from a tiny group to a huge network, it has been observed that social norms are best enforced at the intermediate size. We all experience social norming – in the United States, we are generally expected to tip a waiter 15%. When applied to companies, one might find everyone goes out to lunch on Friday. Or in some sales oriented companies, everyone might be expected to work overtime at month end, quarter end and year end. Maybe that seems intuitive to you, but it bears exploring to test his theory.
Let’s analyze social networks at three different sizes: in foraging societies, the network is small (300 people or fewer), and everybody knows everybody in a detailed way. Turn the clock (or the globe) to an agrarian society where towns and even small cities form, and suddenly the network is thousands of people – an intermediate size. Next, move to the modern city where the networks include millions of people.
In the tiny group (hunter gatherers), violating a norm doesn’t really add much information to how the group perceives someone. In the medium group (farmers), where not everyone knows everyone, seeing a violation of a norm amounts to a warning sign to stay away (thus reinforcing the norm). Networks of gossip also reinforce the norms. In the large group (modern city), the norm may not even be recognized as an objective social cue, or if it is, generally most people are unaware of the violation due to the size of the network.
To quote Hanson, “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.”
Understanding the structure of scientific communities could lead to insights in norm enforcement as well. If you knew a scientific community was relatively small or relatively large, you could assume things about how norms are enforced within the community. Perhaps risk-taking and innovation happen all the time on the ends of the spectrum (small, nascent communities and large, mature ones). Whereas, the medium sized community enforces a risk-averse norm for what to research. Which group of people would you rather collaborate with?
If only there was a way to understand the size and social dynamics of a scientific community — oh, yeah, if you’re reading this, you’ve already found us, and we can do that for you. Drop us a line.
Footnote: Hanson’s social norms are enforced via two key informal mechanisms:
- 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.
- 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.
- How Social Norms Change (freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com)