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Social Norms and the Replacement Logic

Social Norms and the Replacement Logic

July 2nd, 2015


Björn Bartling (University of Zurich)

It is often argued that the replacement logic (“if I don’t do it, someone else will”) contributes to the erosion of moral behavior in markets and other institutions. In this paper, we show in a large-scale experimental study that the replacement logic does not affect behavior in general. Instead, the effect of possible replacement of an action by other players critically depends on the social norm associated with the underlying action. In particular, we find that subjects are insensitive to the replacement logic if a clear social norm exists that an action is inappropriate. In these cases, subjects behave as if they focus only on their own conduct, i.e. avoidance of the inappropriate appropriate action, but not on the ultimate outcome. However, if no clear mutual understanding exists about what constitutes right conduct, then subjects follow the replacement logic. In these cases, subjects’ behavior appears to be driven by the outcome of an interaction but not by their own action, which can be replaced. Our results contribute to a better understanding of the nature of social norms, the potential power of the replacement logic, and its limits.