The Seduction of Applied Conformity

Dr. Charles Efferson, University of Lausanne

For a policy maker attempting to reverse a harmful tradition like female genital cutting, childhood smoking, or binge drinking, social influence represents a compelling mechanism.  If an intervention leads one individual to change to a beneficial alternative, this change in behaviour may influence others to follow suit without additional interference from the policy maker.  Accordingly, a key objective is to mobilise social influence to induce these spillovers, and this idea has shaped influential approaches to reversing harmful traditions in various domains, with the abandonment of female genital cutting standing as a canonical example.  We present data from two studies in Sudan that question the basis of relying on social influence to accelerate the abandonment of female genital cutting.  We follow by developing a framework to examine the scope for beneficial spillovers and find that they can be entirely absent even if social influence pervades individual decision making.  Our analysis highlights three critical considerations.  First, if an intervention targets agents amenable to change, social influence typically produces little or no spillovers.  Second, targeting agents resistant to change tends to maximise spillovers, but only if resistant individuals respond to a policy maker's intervention and social networks are not overly homophilous.  Finally, if some groups use the harmful behavior to distinguish themselves from other groups, social influence takes a xenophobic form.  Xenophobia can severely limit spillovers, and in such cases the policy maker should attempt to break the link between the harmful behaviour and out-group derogation.

About the speaker

Charles Efferson  is a population biologist with a PhD in ecology and evolution from UC Davis.  He did a post-doc at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and spent several years as a senior research associate in the economics department at the University of Zurich.  After one year as a lecturer in psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, since 1 September 2018 he serves as a professor in the faculty of business and economics and the University of Lausanne.


Dr. Efferson’s  research focuses on the gene-culture coevolution of human social cognition and behavior in domains involving conformity, coordination, conflict, and cooperation.  He mixes evolutionary modeling with the analysis of both experimental and observational data.  He has conducted fieldwork in Europe, Western Asia, Africa, and South America.  Much of his current empirical research examines the social psychological mechanisms underlying harmful cultural traditions.  This research often has direct policy implications, allowing him to collaborate extensively with UNICEF, the World Bank, and various NGOs.

Venue: Conference room (0.16 & 0.17)

Date: 13 September 2018

Time: 12:00 - 13:00  CET