That the effort people make thinking about social norms is less the better established these norms are, is the result of this quite amusing and interesting article
- Learning to Be Thoughtless: Social Norms and Individual Computation
By Joshua M. Epstein
Computational Economics, 18, 1, p. 9 (2001)
(If you don't have access to the journal, try this draft, which is pretty much similar to the journal version, except that the figures are better.)
It uses a particularly simple model in which `individuals' are represented by simple agents sitting on a circle who chose what to do in a situation (A or B, eat with the fingers or use the fork, wear a towel or a dress). They have a certain search-radius r, that is the number of steps around them in which they observe what the others do. To chose a behavior, in each time-step they do the following: Check out what the neighbors are up to within the search radius, and figure out what the majority does. Then increase search radius to r+1. If the result changes, increase search radius by another step and so on, until it either covers all others or the result does no longer change. Otherwise, if increasing the search radius doesn't result in a change, try decreasing it by one step. If that yields the same result, update search radius to the lower value and figure out whether further decreasing is possible. Adjust behavior to that of the majority within search radius.
It is further assumed that there is some kind of randomness in the system, in that occasionally somebody will just feel like ignoring what the social norm is.
The result of running this model isn't so surprising: If a social norm is already well established, the search radius will decrease into a state where everybody just `knows' what to do. If the system is perturbed by some random shock everybody tries to find out what to do now, and after a while things will settle down in a possibly different, but equally `thoughtless' state.
So, here's a social norm I never understood. Why are letters of recommendation confidential? So confidential, not even the person who the letter is about gets to see them? Having read several letters about myself, I can certify it doesn't kill you. Having read piles of letters about others I still fail to see what the secrecy is good for. The only explanation I can come up with is it's a social norm. As far as I am concerned, it's bad enough there's so much sociology involved in academic hires, somewhat more transparency would certainly be beneficial.
Anyway, what do we learn from this? Question the norms every now and then. It keeps your society mentally flexible and avoids its settling into a thoughtless state.
Related: On the Emergence of Lies