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When Do People Follow the Behavior of Others? The Effects of Descriptive and Injunctive Norms, and the Werther Effect

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Abstract

If most people perform a certain behavior (i.e. if there is a descriptive norm) or if most people think a behavior should be performed (i.e. if there is an injunctive norm), it is likely that the behavior is imitated because it is regarded as effective. Another condition for imitation is that the norms are “focused” upon (i.e. that they are salient or activated). These are the major hypotheses of the focus theory of normative conduct (FTN) by Cialdini and collaborators. The present article criticizes and modifies this theory. Its major weakness is that it is not clear what “effective” means. Cialdini and collaborators insinuate that “effectiveness” of following the behavior of others refers to the overall positive subjectively expected consequences of imitation. The question then is what these consequences are, and under which conditions they have an impact on imitating the behavior of others. To answer this question we apply the social psychological value expectancy theory that helps to answer these questions. We specify, among other things, a list of possible consequences of following the behavior of others. It is further argued that a distinction between the incentives generated by the behavior of others and the pre-existing incentives is important for explaining the impact of the behavior of others. We illustrate our modification of FTN with the Werther effect, in which the suicide of a figure in a novel by J. W. Goethe was imitated. Existing data suggests that follow-up suicides may be cues of incentives for suicides of others. These incentives are among the list of incentives specified before. However, the very small effects of reported suicides on new suicides indicate that pre-existing incentives are the major factors. Value expectancy theory suggests that the number of others trigger imitation most likely when the overall pre-existing incentives for performing and not performing a behavior are similar. In this situation the behavior of others might become a “nudge” (i.e. might add sufficient incentives) to imitate the behavior of others. This happens most often in low-cost situations (such as littering) but rarely in high-cost situations (such as suicides).

Keywords

  • Focus theory of normative conduct
  • Descriptive norms
  • Injunctive norms
  • Value expectancy theory
  • Rational choice approach
  • Werther effect
  • Suicide imitation

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Fig. 1

(Source: own research)

Fig. 2

(Source: own research)

Fig. 3

(Source: own research)

Notes

  1. 1.

    If in a dark room a small point of light is observed it seems that it moves, but it is actually stable. Subjects were asked in the experiment to estimate the size of the movement. Estimates depended on the judgments of others.

  2. 2.

    See particularly Cialdini 1993, 2007, 2012; Cialdini et al. 1990, 1991, 2004; Cialdini and Trost 1998; Chung and Rimal 2016; Goldstein et al. 2008; Kallgren et al. 2000; Kenrick et al. 2012; Silva and John 2017. For an overview see Stok and de Ridder 2019. The following exposition and critique of FTN is mainly based on Cialdini et al. 1990, 1991.

  3. 3.

    For the sake of simplicity, citations refer to the year of a publication. For example, (1991, p. 203) refers to Cialdini et al (1991, p. 203).

  4. 4.

    Our procedure is what Carnap (e.g. 1962, p. 1 ff.) called explication: The goal is to provide a clarification of a concept or statement that seems theoretically most fruitful and is not an “interpretation” of what the author could have meant (it is unclear anyway what an author means). For a detailed discussion see Opp (2014, p. 149 ff.).

  5. 5.

    The example is taken from Max Weber’s “Soziologische Grundbegriffe,” section “Begriff des sozialen Handelns”.

  6. 6.

    See particularly Feather 1982, 1990; Wigfield et al. 2016. Subjective expected utility (SEU) theory is a version of VET that is used in economics. See Stigler 1950a, 1950b. For limitations of space it is not possible to discuss VET and its relationship to the wide version of rational choice theory. The wide version assumes, among other things, subjective (and not objective) utility maximization and admits all kinds of motives (including altruism and the goal to follow norms). For details see Opp 2021. For a discussion of different versions of rational choice theory see also Diekmann and Voss 2004.

  7. 7.

    Some of the following incentives are mentioned or insinuated in the literature. See, e.g., Keuschnigg (2015a, p. 904). But normally there is no detailed discussion or specification of a list of incentives.

  8. 8.

    In Mozart’s opera “Die Zauberflöte” (The Magic Flute) Papageno (in scene 9 of the opera beginning with “Papagena! Papagena! Papagena! Weibchen!”) wanted to commit suicide but three young boys (“Knaben”) solved his problem.

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Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to Yuan Hsiao, Marc Keuschnigg, Ivar Krumpal, Heiner Meulemann, Werner Raub, and Peter Schmidt for valuable comments on a former version of this paper.

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Opp, KD. (2021). When Do People Follow the Behavior of Others? The Effects of Descriptive and Injunctive Norms, and the Werther Effect. In: Krumpal, I., Raub, W., Tutić, A. (eds) Rationality in Social Science. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-33536-6_6

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