A Penn philosopher’s five-step guide to changing ingrained societal behaviors

In the 2015 Mexican telenovela “Simplemente María,” María is an average woman who must raise her child alone. To change her lot in life, she procures a sewing machine, learns to sew, and works her way up in the fashion industry. She can soon support herself and her son.

“María” has become a role model for a particular subset of women, and she’s an example of one tool Cristina Bicchieri details in her newly released book “Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms.” The text is a follow-up to a 2006 tome on social norms and aims to teach non-academics how to adjust ingrained societal behaviors.

“Soap operas are a very interesting [path] to behavioral change,” says Bicchieri, the Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts & Sciences. “It’s much easier for people to identify with characters who are similar to them. The most successful—in the sense of starting or helping collective behavioral change—are those who are very close to the average person.”

The book summarizes a set of five lectures Bicchieri gave at universities across the world, starting with the most basic concept: how to “diagnose” a collective behavior.

“Is it a custom? A descriptive norm?” she asks. The objective here, she adds, is to get at the underlying reasons why people act as they do.

Chapters two and three focus on measurements and tools for change, respectively. They grew out of work Bicchieri conducted in the lab, where she created an operational, measurable definition for social norms, something no one before her had done.

“You don’t have a lab in India or Nigeria when you [are out in the field] doing these major surveys,” she says. So she tweaked the process to make sense beyond a laboratory’s borders, incorporating vignettes and other basic tools like legal reform and economic incentives, then discussing their positives and drawbacks.

She brings up some challenging examples, like female genital cutting, child marriage, and open defecation. Laws against wedding someone younger than a certain age work only if the community buys into it, she explains. The same goes for paying families to build and use a latrine instead of going to the bathroom in the street.

Bicchieri closes the book by explaining how social norms emerge, either by becoming such a part of a group’s identity that everyone starts to follow, or by solving the “public good provision,” preventing people from free-riding on those making meaningful contributions. She also touches on trendsetters, leaders within communities crucial to initiating new behaviors and abandoning established, harmful ones. Here, she once again returns to soap operas.

“People can identify with the characters in these soap operas. They show that new behavior is possible, that new behavior will go through hurdles, but in the end will succeed,” she says. “They increase the self-confidence of people who may want to change.”

A two-part Coursera course called “Social Norms, Social Change,” which restarts approximately every four weeks, accompanies the book.

Cristina Bicchieri