Politics and society09.06.2022

Elections influence social norms

The results of a recent study involving a researcher from the University of Fribourg have shown that elections can change people’s perceptions of what is ethically right and wrong – and sometimes very quickly.

Social norms are socially determined values that serve as a compass in everyday life and are considered to be very long-lasting and stable. However, recent observations suggest that they can change rapidly due to election results.

Normalised rhetoric
In the United Kingdom, hate crimes against foreigners and immigrants rose sharply after the referendum on Brexit in 2016. A United Nations report attributed this increase in part to the fact that after the referendum, “anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric had become ‘normalised’”. A similar development was evident in the United States after the 2016 presidential election. In contrast, research from the United States and Germany suggests that female candidates’ electoral successes can also have a positive impact on attitudes towards women in politics and the workplace. Do elections really have the potential to influence social values and norms?

How socially appropriate is sharing?
Jana Freundt (at the University of Fribourg), Arno Apffelstaedt and Christoph Oslislo (both at the University of Cologne) investigated this question using an online experiment. Participants were presented with a situation in which they had to decide whether they wanted to share their income with another person in the study. Some participants had previously voted in a referendum on a rule specifying either that everyone should share their income or that income should not be shared. Following this rule was voluntary.

Using a rating scale, the researchers evaluated how “socially appropriate” the subjects considered the sharing or non-sharing of income to be. Without a predetermined rule, sharing was perceived as much more socially appropriate than not sharing. However, when the rule chosen by the majority stated that income should not be shared, the picture changed: now, non-sharing was often seen as the socially appropriate behaviour. Depending on the outcome, voting results can therefore undermine a widespread social norm – for example by making the decision not to share acceptable. In this specific experiment, elected rules not only increased the moral valuation of selfish behaviour but also made normative evaluation more difficult and ambiguous in general.

Relationship between elections and norms
The research findings show that actions previously seen as socially inappropriate can be perceived as socially appropriate based the results of an election. Consequently, a pre-existing moral consensus may be weakened. Thanks to the study design, the research team was able to exclude other factors influencing the change in norms, and thus for the first time to identify a clear causal connection between elections and norms. Interestingly, the influence of elections on norms was still observed even if the electoral process had democratic shortcomings, for example if an election fee was introduced, voters were bribed or poorer voters were excluded from the election. The results of the study open up new perspectives for reflecting on the role of democratic processes in social cohesion.

Study: Arno Apffelstaedt, Jana Freundt, Christoph Oslislo (2022): Social norms and elections: how elected rules can make behavior (in)appropriate. In: Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. Volume 196, April 2022, 148–177. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2022.01.031