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A Theory of Conformity

B. Douglas Bernheim
Journal of Political Economy
Vol. 102, No. 5 (Oct., 1994), pp. 841-877
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2138650
Page Count: 37
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A Theory of Conformity
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Abstract

This paper analyzes a model of social interaction in which individuals care about status as well as "intrinsic" utility (which refers to utility derived directly from consumption). Status is assumed to depend on public perceptions about an individual's predispositions rather than on the individual's actions. However, since predispositions are unobservable, actions signal predispositions and therefore affect status. When status is sufficiently important relative to intrinsic utility, many individuals conform to a single, homogeneous standard of behavior, despite heterogeneous underlying preferences. They are willing to conform because they recognize that even small departures from the social norm will seriously impair their status. The fact that society harshly censures all nonconformists is not simply assumed (indeed, status varies smoothly with perceived type); rather, it is produced endogenously. Despite this penalty, agents with sufficiently extreme preferences refuse to conform. The model provides an explanation for the fact that standards of behavior govern some activities but do not govern others. It also suggests a theory of how standards of behavior might evolve in response to changes in the distribution of intrinsic preferences. In particular, for some values of the preference parameters, norms are both persistent and widely followed; for other values, norms are transitory and confined to small groups. Thus the model produces both customs and fads. Finally, an extension of the model suggests an explanation for the development of multiple subcultures, each with its own distinct norm.

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