New evidence on the durability of social norms

John Helliwell, Shun Wang, Jinwen Xu 12 March 2014



Recent studies find that individuals’ social norms – as evidenced by their opinions and behaviour – can be transmitted from one generation to the next within the same cultural setting (Algan and Cahuc 2010, Bjørnskov 2012, Dohmen et al. 2012, Guiso et al. 2006, Rainer and Siedler 2009, Rice and Feldman 1997). Studies also find that the current environment – such as institutions – plays an important role in shaping an individual’s social norms (Dinesen 2012, Nannestad et al. 2014, Alesina and La Ferrara 2002, Bjørnskov 2007, Glaeser et al. 2000, Helliwell and Wang 2011, Kosfeld et al. 2005).

Two different perspectives on the sources of social norms

The sources of social norms are summarised by two main perspectives – cultural versus experiential.

  • The cultural perspective stresses that social norms are a durable trait transmitted from one generation to the next through parenting activities and other aspects of early socialisation.
  • The experiential perspective emphasises that social norms are mainly based on experience in the environment in which one lives.

Immigrants’ social norms

Analysing the attitudes of immigrants is an effective way to examine the relative importance of the two perspectives, as the experiential perspective predicts that immigrants’ attitudes will be highly affected by their current surroundings in the destination country, while the cultural perspective predicts that immigrants’ social norms will be highly correlated with those prevalent in their birth countries.

Relative importance of culture versus experience

In recent research (Helliwell et al. 2014),we test the relative importance of culture versus experience by examining the immigration footprints for social trust, for generosity, and for confidence in specific national institutions, making use of a fully global sample involving migrants in more than 130 countries. These data from the Gallup World Poll enable us to establish the generality of footprint effects for social norms.

Our results support the notion that social norms are deeply rooted in long-standing cultures, yet are nonetheless subject to adaptation when there are major changes in the surrounding circumstances and environment.

  • The effect of source country social trust is strongly significant, with a size about one-third as large as that from trust levels in the destination countries where the migrant now lives.
  • Migrants from low-trust environments are especially affected by the low trust in their country of origin even after migration, while migrants from high-trust environments are less likely to import the high trust of their country of origin to their current country of residence.
  • Holding constant the effects of imported trust, immigrants and the native-born have similar levels of social trust.
  • The footprint effects for generosity are similar as those for social trust, but smaller.

To help confirm that the footprint effects for social norms represent more than just the time it takes to learn about new surroundings, we undertake similar tests for trust in national institutions, where we would not expect to see footprint effects. In contrast to our social trust and generosity results, and consistent with our expectations, we find no footprint effects for opinions about domestic institutions in the new country.

Concluding remarks

Although migrants tend to associate in their new countries with others from the same source country, we find nonetheless that two important social norms – social trust and generosity – adapt substantially to the prevailing norms in the migrants’ new countries of residence. Nonetheless, the continuing importance of cultural and social norms established in earlier life is demonstrated by the significant footprint effects that we find for both social trust and generosity.


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Topics:  Frontiers of economic research Migration

Tags:  institutions, immigration, social attitudes, trust, migration, Culture, social norms