Clickbait from Norms in the Wild

Curios from (Bicchieri 2016) follow. These don’t fit into subsequent posts, but may pique your interest in said posts.

On honoring infants

From UNICEF participants in our training program I learned that in many parts of Africa milk is classified as “hot” and water “cold,” that honored guests are given water, and that children are treated like honored guests. (Bicchieri 2016)

On diarrhetic taxonomies

Norms in the Wild emphasizes that would-be reformers must understand not only local conditions (physical facts) but also local understandings (beliefs about those facts and schema). It illustrates the point with this vivid example:

For example, Yoder (1995) demonstrated that local Zairian understandings of the nature, causes, and appropriate treatment of childhood diarrhea differed considerably from the contemporary biomedical approach. What most Westerners would consider a case of diarrhea could be classified as one of six different diseases by residents of Lubumbashi, Zaire, depending on the perceived symptoms of the sufferer. All of the diseases feature frequent stools as one of their central symptoms, but only Kauhara (one of the local terms for a type of diarrhea) was functionally equated with what a medical practitioner would diagnose as diarrhea. Other diarrheal classifications, such as Lukunga, which featured a “clacking sound” in the mouth as a critical symptom (in addition to frequent stools), was not equated with the typical medical diagnosis. When various organizations tried to inform Zairians about appropriate treatments for diarrhea, many locals likely interpreted the information to be only specific to Kauhara (and not other local disease classifications). In line with this assertion, the sampled Zairians in Yoder’s (1995) study readily *gave the appropriate treatment (e.g., oral rehydration therapy) to their children if they were thought to have Kahuara but not if they were thought to have another diarrheal disease. (Bicchieri 2016)

On taming poop

Open defecation is the practice of defecating outside in something like a field rather than a toilet. It’s still common in many parts of the world despite being a public health nightmare. When trying to eliminate open defecation:

In some such interventions, facilitators will lead groups of people through the heart of open defecation fields, effectively triggering collective feelings of disgust and embarrassment. Later the facilitators will place feces next to food, and point out how flies will flit back and forth between them, effectively simulating the disease transmission process. Through this example, food that is left out near feces is linked with feelings of disgust. The facilitator can also smear her hands with clay or charcoal, wipe them on a leaf (simulating having fecal matter on one’s hands even after wiping them “clean”), and shake hands with members of the community. The community members will get a little clay or charcoal on their hands, and consequently those who do not adequately wash their hands will be seen as disgusting. (Bicchieri 2016)
All the communities where the practice was successfully abandoned collectively decided to sanction transgressions and closely monitored adherence to the new behavior. Children may go around with whistles drawing attention to the defectors, and elders may take long sticks, ready to “slap the wrists” of anyone who violates the new rule. (Bicchieri 2016)

On reluctant female genital cutting

Pluralistic ignorance describes scenarios in which group members conform to a norm they each privately reject because each falsely believe that others accept the norm. It seems to sometimes explain the persistence of female genital cutting.

Female genital cutting prevalence vs support of the practice among women 15–49
Area Time period Prevalence Support
Somalia 2006 97.9 64.5
Guinea 2005 95.6 69.2
Djibouti 2006 93.1 36.6
Egypt 2008 91.1 54
Sudan 2006 89.3 23.7
Mali 2007 85.2 76
Ethiopia 2005 74.3 31.4
Burkina Faso 2006 72.5 11.1
Mauritania 2007 72.2 53.4
Chad 2004 44.9 49.4
Yemen 1997 22.6 41

On dirty laundry

Norms in the Wild argues that empirical expectations can be at least as influential as normative expectations:

Similarly, a study by Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008) shows that telling hotel guests that a majority of other guests reuse their unwashed towels prompted a large number of guests to do the same. In comparison, making an environmental (normative) appeal to save the water used in washing used towels did not have any effect. (Bicchieri 2016)

On blood money

The Moral Limits of Markets made some claims about market norms “crowding out” other norms. Norms in the Wild reports an interesting experiment on the topic:

Mellström and Johannesson (2008) show that simply offering a small monetary incentive to donate significantly decreases blood donation rates, but when people are offered the opportunity to donate the money to charity, blood donation rates return to their original level. Donating the money to charity reaffirms the original signal that one is morally motivated. (Bicchieri 2016)

On the unreasonable effectiveness of TV

Broadcast TV can apparently1 have a huge impact on norms:

Ven Conmigo (Come with Me), which was designed to encourage literacy in its viewer base, the characters took advantage of actual governmental programs to learn to read. The show employed motivational epilogues after each episode that featured dramatic music, outlined the tangible benefits of particular behaviors, and provided specific instructions for how to take advantage of particular programs. […] Over the course of the year when the show was televised, a total of 839,943 individuals enrolled in adult literacy and education classes, representing a ninefold increase in enrollments over the previous year (Singhal and Rogers 1991). (Bicchieri 2016)
enrollment rates of girls in elementary school rose from 10 percent to 38 percent in just one year of Hum Log’s broadcast. (Bicchieri 2016)
there was a 33 percent increase in Mexican visits to family planning clinics to obtain contraceptives while the show was on the air (Singhal and Rogers 1991) (Bicchieri 2016)

Bicchieri, Cristina. 2016. Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms. Oxford University Press.

Rossi, Peter H. 1987. “The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules.” Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 4: 3–20. https://www.gwern.net/docs/sociology/1987-rossi.pdf.


  1. Honestly, I’m skeptical of these results. These are enormous effect sizes and seem to entirely contravene the iron law of evaluation (“The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.”) (Rossi 1987). I’ll have to investigate at some point.