Conventions and Norms: An Experimental Approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology and Philosophy


According to a tradition that goes back to Thomas Schelling and David Lewis, the emergence of social conventions can be modelled game-theoretically, as the solution to a coordination problem achieved by exploiting the salience of an equilibrium. The salience of convention is due to precedent: a convention is followed because it’s been followed in the past. Although Lewis does not see conventions as intrinsically normatively binding, several philosophers have recently argued that conventions imply a normative commitment to follow a line of action set out collectively by a group. And classic experiments in social psychology suggest that deviance from conventional behaviour may be costly.

This project tries to test the hypothesis that in the context of coordination problems the mere formation of a majority and the collective repetition of a task create a normative pressure on members of a group to conform to a behavioural regularity, even when they have an individualistic incentive to deviate. The results are relevant for the debate on the philosophical foundations of society, but also in traditional areas of economics – like bargaining, pricing, the formation of stock-market bubbles – that are usually considered outside the domain of norm-driven behaviour.


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Guala F (2012) The normativity of Lewis Conventions in Synthese

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Guala F (2010) How history and convention create norms: An experimental study in Journal of Economic Psychology