Social Norms, Social Change I


About this Course

This is a course on social norms, the rules that glue societies together. It teaches how to diagnose social norms, and how to distinguish them from other social constructs, like customs or conventions. These distinctions are crucial for effective policy interventions aimed to create new, beneficial norms or eliminate harmful ones. The course teaches how to measure social norms and the expectations that support them, and how to decide whether they cause specific behaviors. The course is a joint Penn-UNICEF project, and it includes many examples of norms that sustain behaviors like child marriage, gender violence and sanitation practices.

This is Part 1 of the Social Norms, Social Change series. In these lectures, I introduce all the basic concepts and definitions, such as social expectations and conditional preferences, that help us distinguish between different types of social practices like customs, descriptive norms and social norms. Expectations and preferences can be measured, and these lectures explain how to measure them. Measurement is crucial to understanding the nature of the practice you are facing, as well as whether an intervention was or was not successful, and why. In Part 2, we will put into practice all we have learned in Part 1.

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Hours to completeApprox. 13 hours to complete
Available languagesSubtitles: French, Chinese (Simplified), Greek, Russian, Turkish, English, Spanish, Romanian
Career direction18% started a new career after completing these courses
Career Benefit19% got a tangible career benefit from this course
Career promotion11% got a pay increase or promotion


  • Education
  • Social Psychology
  • Research Methods
  • Qualitative Research


This Course Offered by University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania (commonly referred to as Penn) is a private university, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. A member of the Ivy League, Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and considers itself to be the first university in the United States with both undergraduate and graduate studies.


UNICEF, also known as the United Nations Children’s Fund, is a United Nations agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide. The agency is among the most widespread and recognizable social welfare organizations in the world, with a presence in 192 countries and territories.


Cristina Bicchieri

My intellectual affinities lie at the border between philosophy, game theory and psychology. My primary research focus is on judgment and decision making with special interest in decisions about fairness, trust, and cooperation, and how expectations affect behavior. A second research focus examines the nature and evolution of social norms, how to measure norms (consensus and compliance) and what strategies to adopt to foster social change. This research is more applied, and forms the core of the newly created Penn Social Norms Training and Consulting group. A third, earlier research focus has been the epistemic foundations of game theory and how changes in information affects rational choices and solutions. • In my most recent work, I have designed behavioral experiments aimed at testing several hypotheses based on the theory of social norms that I developed in my book, The Grammar of Society: the Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms (Cambridge University Press, 2006). The experimental results show that most subjects have a conditional preference for following pro-social norms. Manipulating their expectations causes major behavioral changes (i.e., from fair to unfair choices, from cooperation to defection, etc.). One of the conclusions we may draw is that there are no such things as stable dispositions or unconditional preferences (to be fair, reciprocate, cooperate, and so on). Another is that policymakers who want to induce pro-social behavior have to work on changing people’s expectations about how other people behave in similar situations. These results have major consequences for our understanding of moral behavior and the construction of better normative theories, grounded on what people can in fact do. • The nature and dynamics of social norms studies how norms may emerge and become stable, why an established norm may suddenly be abandoned, how is it possible that inefficient or unpopular norms survive, and what motivates people to obey norms. In order to answer some of these questions, I have combined evolutionary and game-theoretic tools with models of decision making drawn from cognitive and social psychology. For example, I use my theory of context-dependent preferences to build more realistic evolutionary models of the emergence of pro-social norms of fairness and reciprocity. • My earlier (but never completely abandoned) research focus was the epistemic foundations of game theory. I recently wrote about belief-revision in games, and what kind of solutions our belief-revision model supports. In my past work I have analyzed the consequences of relaxing the ‘common knowledge’ assumption in several classes of games. My contributions include axiomatic models of players’ theory of the game and the proof that — in a large class of games — a player’s theory of the game is consistent only if the player’s knowledge is limited. An important consequence of assuming bounded knowledge is that it allows for more intuitive solutions to familiar games such as the finitely repeated prisoner’s dilemma or the chain-store paradox. I have also been interested in devising mechanical procedures (algorithms) that allow players to compute solutions for games of perfect and imperfect information. Devising such procedures is particularly important for Artificial Intelligence applications, since interacting software agents have to be programmed to play a variety of ‘games’.

Syllabus – What you will learn from this course

Week 1: Interdependent & Independent Actions + Empirical Expectations

Welcome Social Norms, Social Change. This course aims to give you the tools to understand, measure, and change collective practices. This module focuses on two of the basic building blocks the theory of social norms is built on: the distinction between interdependent and independent behavior, and empirical expectations.

Week 2: Normative Expectations + Personal Normative Beliefs

This module adds two more of the basic building blocks of the theory: normative expectations and personal normative beliefs. Although both are “normative” — that is, both have a component dealing with a “should” — there are important differences between normative expectations and personal normative beliefs.

Week 3: Conditional Preferences + Social Norms

In this module we cover two topics: conditional preferences and social norms. Conditional preferences are the final basic building block of the theory of social norms. After studying all these building blocks, we can finally assemble them to understand what it means for a collective practice to be a social norm.

Week 4: Pluralistic Ignorance + Measuring Norms

This module covers two important topics: pluralistic ignorance and norm measurement. Sometimes individuals endorse their social norms, but sometimes they do not. Knowing when a norm is endorsed is crucial for intervention. But how do we know we are dealing with a social norm or whether it’s endorsed? Measurement answers that question.

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