, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 277-304

Emotions and actions associated with norm-breaking events

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Abstract

Norms have a strong influence on human social interactions, but the emotions and actions associated with norm-breaking events have not been systematically studied. We asked subjects to imagine themselves in a conflict situation and then to report how they would feel, how they would act, and how they would imagine the feelings and actions of their opponent. By altering the fictional scenario that they were asked to imagine (weak vs. strong norm) and the perspective of the subject (norm-breaker vs. the one whose norm has been violated), the emotions and actions associated with norm-breaking events could be examined. We tested the following hypotheses: (1) norms create emotional asymmetries that resolve conflicts in otherwise symmetrical contest situations; (2) sex differences exist in response to norm-breaking events, with males more prone to violence than females; (3) individual differences exist in response to norm-breaking events, along the lines predicted by theoretical models; and (4) emotions and actions attributed to one’s opponent are distorted in ways that can be interpreted as adaptive for the believer. In addition to these basic hypotheses, we address more subtle issues concerning the particular emotions provoked by norm-breaking events, the degree to which emotional response is fine-tuned to the situation, and the degree to which emotional response correlates with anticipated behavioral response. We discuss the relevance of our study to the general study of emotions and the use of fictional scenarios as a research method in addition to the study of norms from an evolutionary perspective.

David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist interested in a broad range of issues relevant to human behavior. He has published in psychology, anthropology, and philosophy journals in addition to his mainstream biological research. He is author of Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and co-author with philosopher Elliott Sober of Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Harvard University Press, 1998).
Rick O’Gorman is an evolutionary biologist interested in the applications of Darwinian theory to social behavior in humans and in general theoretical issues in evolutionary biology. His recent work concentrated on the evolutionary study of social norm behavior and modeling of altruistic systems.