A Stepping Stone Approach to Understanding Harmful Norms

53 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2021

See all articles by Selim Gulesci

Selim Gulesci

Bocconi University - Department of Economics

Sam Jindani

University of Cambridge

Eliana La Ferrara

Bocconi University - Department of Economics

David Smerdon

University of Queensland

Munshi Sulaiman

BRAC-Africa

H. Young

University of Oxford

Date Written: February 1, 2021

Abstract

Harmful social norms often persist despite legal and economic sanctions against them. Can the abandonment of a harmful norm be facilitated by the presence of a 'mildly harmful' alternative that may act as a stepping stone in the medium run? Or will this become a new absorbing norm? We propose a dynamic, game-theoretic model to analyze this question, focusing on interim dynamics. We derive necessary and sufficient conditions for a stepping stone transition, which involve as key parameters the social penalty factors and the difference in intrinsic utilities of the various actions. We explore the implications of the model using original data on female genital cutting in Somalia, where a transition is underway from an extremely invasive to a milder form of cutting. The framework is general and can be applied to other examples, both contemporary and historical, including footbinding, dueling, child marriage and smoking. Our analysis underlines the importance of considering intermediate alternatives when formulating policies against harmful norms.

JEL Classification: C73, O12, Z10

Suggested Citation

Gulesci, Selim and Jindani, Sam and La Ferrara, Eliana and Smerdon, David and Sulaiman, Munshi and Young, H., A Stepping Stone Approach to Understanding Harmful Norms (February 1, 2021). CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP15776, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3784002

Selim Gulesci (Contact Author)

Bocconi University - Department of Economics ( email )

Via Gobbi 5
Milan, 20136
Italy

Sam Jindani

University of Cambridge ( email )

Trinity Ln
Cambridge, CB2 1TN
United Kingdom

Eliana La Ferrara

Bocconi University - Department of Economics ( email )

Via Gobbi 5
Milan, 20136
Italy

David Smerdon

University of Queensland ( email )

St Lucia
Brisbane, Queensland 4072
Australia

Munshi Sulaiman

BRAC-Africa ( email )

Liberia

H. Young

University of Oxford ( email )

Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

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