Conflicts of Norms: The Dynamics of Deviant Behavior When Deciding Which Rule to Follow

Alessandro Tacconelli (ETH Zurich)
Jessie Janny Thenarianto (University of Pennsylvania)
Diyang Chu (Yale University, Law School)


Unlawful acts exert a significant pressure on society. Yet, the literature on the mechanisms behind legal-rule violations is still far from reaching convincing and comprehensive results. Existing models have not properly taken social norms into account, we claim. Several studies suggest that there is a relationship between legal and social norms, but have not experimentally disentangled the interaction between the two. Moving from this gap, our study aims to understand whether and how individuals vary their compliance with legal rules when social expectations conflict or cohere with those. We implement an online experimental between-subject design that comprises an incentive-compatible cheating game. We keep the formal non-cheating ‘rule of the game’ and economic incentives constant, but we systematically vary the ‘direction’ of social information presented across three groups. While participants assigned to an ‘Antisocial’ group learn about others’ deviant actions and beliefs, those assigned to a ‘Prosocial’ group receive information about others’ compliant behavior and beliefs (with the control group receiving neutral, normalized information). Thus, we measure the differential cheating rate (i.e., deviancy) across those groups. Results provide compelling evidence showing how a difference exists between our Antisocial and Prosocial groups: participants in the former group breach the ‘rule of the game’ on average more than those in the latter. Our results yield implications for the design of institutional policies aimed at preventing delinquency (or recidivism). The study also serves as a starting point to boost our understanding of the interactions shaping individual ‘intentionality’ to abide by or breach (legal) rules.

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