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Evaluating Norms: An Empirical Analysis of the Relationship between Norm-Content, Operator, and Charitable Behavior

Posted by on Wednesday, February 3, 2010 in Articles, Volume 63, Number 1, Volumes.

There are several kinds of norms, and this variety can lead to spirited debate about the best norm to employ for the regulation of a particular activity. Should the norm be mandatory or aspirational? A rule or a standard? One important area in which norm-choice has come to the fore is the American Bar Association’s oversight of pro bono work. Currently, the organization utilizes an aspirational norm recommending that lawyers perform at least fifty pro bono hours annually, but there is pressure to adopt some sort of mandatory rubric. Inspired by this debate, we have designed and implemented an experiment that provides some insight into the effective design of norms for charitable giving. Our results challenge the conventional wisdom that the implementation of a mandatory framework will result in an overall increase in giving. These findings may be applicable not only to the pro bono debate but also to general legislative strategy with respect to inducement of charitable behavior.

Prior empirical studies that have analyzed the effect of norm characteristics on behavior have typically pitted rules against standards. We placed these two norm-content classes in combination with two kinds of operators: aspirational and mandatory. Thus, we tested four norm combinations, each one representative of norms in important rubrics such as legal systems and codes of ethics. Through this more complex model, our results contribute to the literature on two psychological phenomena, motivation crowding and anchoring, that affect the way people respond to norms.

We found that, in the context of inducing charitable behavior, it is more effective to use an aspirational rather than a mandatory operator when the operator is conjoined with moral norm-content. Additionally, we found that the effectiveness of norms that utilize mandatory operators is contingent upon the kind of norm-content that they employ, whether moral or bright-line, and that this is not true with norms utilizing aspirational operators. Lastly, the deficit in effectiveness that arises from using mandatory operators in conjunction with moral norm-content can be overcome by switching to bright-line norm-content, but only if the minimums are set very high. Our results support the view that norms can induce crowding out, leading to less charitable conduct than would have occurred under an aspirational system. They also illustrate a context in which aspirational norms are resistant to anchoring effects.