Without ever explicitly discussing it, groups often times establish norms. A family or committee might develop a norm about when it is acceptable or not for members to interrupt each other. People greeting each other in different countries have very different norms for whether to shake hands or kiss, and if to kiss, how many times and in what cheek order. In some countries, tipping is not the norm, but if it is, violating the tipping norm could make you a persona non grata at a restaurant. We (Hawkins & Goldstone, 2016) were interested in how social norms emerge in a group without its members explicitly deciding on them, and the factors that promote effective norms.
To help explore these questions, we started by considering a simple scenario we call “Battle of the Exes.” You and your romantic partner live in a small town and both love coffee. Your shared loved of coffee was not, alas, enough to keep you together, and you have now broken up. There are only two coffee shops in your town, one with much better coffee than the other. Both you and your ex want to go every day for coffee during your simultaneously occurring coffee breaks, but if you pick the same place and run into one another, neither of you will enjoy your break at all.
Neither you nor your ex want to sit down to negotiate a schedule, but can you nonetheless develop a satisfactory routine? One of you could always go to the better coffee shop, but that would not be fair. Each of you could choose randomly, but that would end up with you and your ex often seeing each other, which would not maximize your duo’s happiness, and would not provide a stable solution in the long run.
These three features — fairness, happiness maximization, and stability are generally useful ways to assess the quality of a group’s behavior. To study scenarios like “Battle of the Exes” in the laboratory, we developed an interactive, real-time, online game. On each of the 60 rounds of the game, two players are given the choice of moving their avatar to one of two circles — one that they can visibly see will give them a small monetary prize and one that will give them a large payoff. The only catch is that if both players move to the same circle, then neither player gets anything for that round. For half of the groups, there was a small discrepancy between the prizes (1 cent vs 2 cents), and for the other half, there was a large discrepancy (1 cent versus 4 cents). Also, for half of the groups, each of the players could see the other player’s moment-to-moment position as they moved to the circles (Dynamic movement), while for the other half of the groups, the players only see the final choice that the other player made (Ballistic movement).
568 players were matched together to create 284 two-player groups. Some groups developed behaviors that were fair and stable, and led to both players earning a lot of money. These groups tended to develop social norms even without explicit communication. For example, the players A and B would alternate over rounds who got the large payoff, first A then B then A…., leading to a pattern like ABABABABAB.
In terms of maximizing happiness, the dynamic condition led to better earnings for the players than the ballistic condition. When the players can see each others’ moment-to-moment inclinations, that helps them coordinate. The dynamic condition also led to fairer solutions than the ballistic condition, with players earning similar amounts of money. An implication of these results is that giving the members in a group more information about what each person in the group is currently thinking about doing can help the group achieve well-coordinated, fair and happy solutions. This is something for politicians, social network providers, and amusement parks to consider when they are trying to design social spaces for their groups. Mutual visibility of group members is often an effective way to promote coordination.
In terms of developing stable strategies, there was a striking interaction between payoffs and movement type. When there was not a large difference in payoffs, choices in the ballistic condition were more stable than in the dynamic condition. When the stakes were low, players in the dynamic condition simply relied on moment-to-moment visual information to figure out who should get the larger payoff on any given round. They did not feel a strong pressure to develop a norm because they could use their continuous information as a crutch to help them coordinate. However, when the stakes were high, with one circle earning four times what the other circle earned, then the dynamic condition developed significantly more stable solutions than the ballistic condition. For these particularly contentious, high stakes situations, it is useful for the players to develop strong norms to help them coordinate, and the moment-to-moment information about player positions helps to create these norms.
One clear measure of how much contention there is in a group is how long both players move toward the same high payoff option before one “peels off” and lets the other player have the high payoff prize. Using this objective measure, groups have more contention at the beginning of the experiment session than the end. The higher stakes condition has more contention early on than the lower stakes condition, but by the end of the experiment, that ordering is flipped. Groups that have more contention at the beginning of the experiment tend to have less contention by the end of experiment, and are more likely to develop clever strategies like alternating who gets the high payoff option from round to round. A take-home message from this result is that contention in groups is not something to be avoided. For the groups in our “Battle of the Exes” game, early contention gives rise to well-coordinated, fair, efficient, and happiness maximizing solutions by the end of the experiment. It may be tempting to try to pave over contention and disagreement in a group, but letting the group work through these contentions is often key to giving them the motivation and insight that they need to develop creative, well-coordinated norms like alternating who gets the better payoff over rounds. So, although it may have been contention that broke you and your ex up in the first place, there is hope that this kind of early contention may allow you to enjoy your superior cup of coffee in peace. At least on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.