The study shows that changes in norms can occur in the meeting between individuals where one of them punishes another person’s behavior if it is felt threatening. Photo: Elena Nichizhenova/Mostphotos
The study shows that changes in norms can occur in the meeting between individuals where one punishes the other’s behaviour if it feels threatening. Photo: Elena Nichizhenova/Mostphotos

Do you frown at people who sneeze in their hand instead of in a tissue? Would you be prepared to punish that person by frowning at him or her, showing you dislike the behaviour? In that case you are contributing to the civilization process.

The way we behave in different situations is often governed by social norms, informal rules about what is considered normal or acceptable. Understanding how these norms spread and develop is therefore interesting in all contexts where one wants to achieve behavioural change.

Researchers looked closer at human psychology

Previous research has shown that norms around hygiene and violence have become increasingly stricter for a long time and in many societies, regardless of culture. Explanations have been sought in societal changes such as technological advances, increased welfare and tougher laws, but they have proven to be inadequate. In a new study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers look closer at human psychology to find the solution.

“Our results indicate that norms of violence and hygiene are influenced by general human psychology. It’s exciting because it can make it possible to say something about how our behaviour can change in the future in several areas”, says Pontus Strimling, Institute for Futures Studies.

He has done the study together with Micheál de Barra, Ph D in Psychology, and Kimmo Eriksson, visiting Professor, both at the Centre for the study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University.

In the study the researchers show that changes in norms can occur in the meeting between individuals where one of them punishes the other for a behaviour that feels threatening.

“It has been previously thought that punishment maintains norms; the new here is that we see informal punishment as a force that changes norms”, says Kimmo Eriksson, Stockholm University.

A looser kind of behaviour is punished

The researchers show that people who have a strict view of hygiene and violence tend to feel more threatened by behaviours that signal a looser attitude toward such norms, than the other way around. People who fell threatened are more likely to penalize those who exhibit the looser kind of behaviour. People being punished tend to change their behaviour to avoid punishment, no matter how common the stricter norm is in the general population. Thus, a norm that prevails in a small part of the population, can change the behaviour of a majority of the population over time.

A better understanding of how social norms spread and develop can also be helpful in situations where you need an uncommon behaviour to spread to a larger majority of people. As an example Pontus Strimling mentions that several hundreds of thousands of children could be rescued from death every year if people washed their hands after toilet visits.

“We hope our results will help in improving hygiene in different parts of the world”, says Pontus Strimling.


The article “Asymmetries in punishment propensity may drive the civilization process” is published in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Read more about the research at The Institute for Future Studies.