Cultural variation in social perceptions of norm-breakers and peer punishers

Social norms may be enforced by individuals informally punishing each other for norm transgressions. But how does society really perceive these informal punishers?


The importance of social norms for behaviour, and their variation both across cultures and over time, has been well-established. There is currently a great public interest in cultural differences in norms and values and their consequences. However, scientific understanding of these issues is limited. There is an obvious need for more theoretical and empirical research to improve our understanding of why social norms vary, how cultural differences are maintained, and why norms change.

It is often assumed that normative systems prescribe individual informal punishment, since it improves a group’s ability to cooperate. However, a preliminary study has found that in some, but not all cultures, both norm-breakers and informal peer punishers are ill-reputed.

This project develops novel hypotheses that relate cultural variations in how societies view norm-breakers and peer punishers to variation in individualism and societal threat and propose how it might influence norm compliance, acculturation of immigrants, and the speed of norm change in societies. These hypotheses are tested by means of a series of cross-cultural surveys that combine methods from cultural, social and cognitive psychology and behavioural economics, as well as a time series analysis of sociological data on norms in different countries.

The project will make several significant contributions:

  • It will provide robust measures of social perceptions of peer punishers and norm-breakers for a large selection of countries.
  • It will demonstrate how culture influences how norms are sustained.
  • It will empirically answer whether social norms, with immigrants and society at large, evolve differently depending on the perception of informal punishers.

These are timely topics in a world that gets smaller and smaller and that pays increasing attention to cultural differences. The project is conducted by an international team involving several world-leading researchers.



Principal Investigator

Kimmo Eriksson Professor i matematik/tillämpad matematik

Project members

Joel Krueger Bachelor degree in Philosophy and Psychology

Other project members


Riksbankens Jubileumsfond