NIMBioS Researchers Study the Power of Social Norms

NIMBioSHow you dress, talk, eat and even what you allow yourself to feel – these often unspoken rules of a group are social norms, and many are internalized to such a degree that you probably don’t even notice them. Following norms, however, can sometimes be costly for individuals if norms require sacrifice for the good of the group. How and why did humans evolve to follow such norms in the first place?

A new study from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, based at UT, explores this question, shedding light on the origins of human cooperation.

The results, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the ability of humans to internalize social norms is expected to evolve under a wide range of conditions, helping to forge a kind of cooperation that becomes instinctive.

The study’s lead author is Sergey Gavrilets, a UT professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics and NIMBioS associate director for scientific activities.

The researchers used computer simulations to model both individual behavior in joint group actions and underlying genetic machinery controlling behavior. The researchers worked from the premise that adherence to norms is socially reinforced by the approval of, and rewards to, individuals who follow them and by punishment of norm violators. The researchers’ goal was to see whether certain norms get internalized, meaning that acting according to a norm becomes an end in itself, rather than a tool to get something or to avoid social sanctions.

Read the full story on the NIMBioS website.