Distinguishing fast change in social norms and slow change in personal norms in cooperative decision-making

Psychological research on norms has shown that norms are highly relevant for individuals’ decision-making. Yet, there is so far little understanding of how norms change over time. Knowledge about how norms change may help better understanding their potential for as well as limitations in guiding decision-making and changing behavior. The present work investigated change in individuals’ cooperation norms. As an indicator of different underlying processes of norm change, the temporal dynamics of different types of norms were examined. It was assumed that participants’ social norms are adapted quickly whenever the social situation changes, while personal norms change more slowly and gradually, abstracting part of the situational learning in interaction with one’s personality. In an experimental study, participants played a repeated prisoner’s dilemma game with artificial co-players representing a predominantly cooperative or uncooperative social setting, depending on the experimental condition. The condition was expected to affect slow learning of personal norms. Additionally, the cooperativeness of the social setting was varied repeatedly within conditions, expected to result in fast changes in social norms. Participants’ personal and social norms were assessed throughout the game. As predicted, the temporal dynamics differed between norms with social norms changing quickly and personal norms more slowly. Personal norms strongly predicted behavioral decision-making and were predicted by situational and personality factors. Potential qualitative differences of the underlying norm change processes are discussed.