Social norms theory and development economics

Lina Eriksson


Social norms are found in all societies and have great impact on human behaviour. They can be both a hindrance and a help for development, depending on whether or not changes necessary for development fit with existing norms.  This paper outlines what social norms are, how they function, and the factors that affect their emergence and change. It highlights how to influence social norms for development economics argues that a clear understanding of social norms is necessary to determine how they will effect development interventions. It recommends focusing on the struggle in the right to define

Literature on social norms in development is relatively new and still emerging and so the report draws on a limited literature that focuses on the nature of social norms.

Key findings

Social norms are common behaviours considered appropriate in a given society. They emerge as the result of a deliberate decision among people to solve a problem they are faced with.  Typically, they regulate what people do and apply to everyone (or almost everyone in a particular group). Although there are cases where the majority pays lip-service to the norm but violates it in secret.  Norms persist because individuals who deviate from the established norms face sanctions. Change in social norms often occurs when enough people have changed behaviour that it is then in the interest of the majority to do so, too.

Evidence suggests that the success of changing formal institutions in order to promote economic growth or democratisation often depends on whether the new institutions fit within existing social norms and moral beliefs.

The paper identifies a number of opportunities to influence social norms:

  • Access information about what others do. As social norms are partly based on the expectations and beliefs about what others do, this is very important. This can be reinforced by general marketing principles, through posters, flyers, and advertisements in newspapers, magazines and TV. However, there might be a risk of a backlash from increased publicity of norm violations.
  • Knowing what people think. Although it is rare that individuals would express their thoughts in word and behaviour to policymakers, this information can be helpful to identify cases of pluralistic ignorance.
  • Utilising social pressure.  Social norms are upheld by sanctions and pressure from an individual’s group or community can sustain good and bad norms alike. It may be possible to strengthen this sanction system through other direct means, such as increasing the publicity of social norms violations.

The authors note that the ethical dimensions of influencing social norms will vary depending on context and need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.


  • Governments should pay closer attention to social norms in order to better understand how to influence them in desirable way and establish public support.
  • Social relationships will be an important factor for predicting whether norms will hinder the development process or not.
  • We should also be aware of the potential, and often quite likely, struggle over the right to define the interpretation of a situation and the appropriate norms. This involves paying attention to the importance of conflict between norms and of ambiguity with respect to the correct schemata for a situation.


Erikson, L. (2015). Social norms theory and development economics. Policy Research Working Paper No. 7450. Washington, DC: World Bank.