Q237. In "The Emperor's Dilemma," Centola, Willer, and Macy talk about “the popular enforcement of unpopular norms.” What does that mean? Why is it a puzzle? What is (are) the mechanism(s) that they think explains it?

Centola, Willer, and Macy “The Emperor's Dilemma"

“Naked emperors are easy to find but hard to explain. It is easy to explain why people comply with unpopular norms—they fear social sanctions. And it is easy to explain why people pressure others to behave the way they want them to behave. But why pressure others to do the opposite? Why would people publicly enforce a norm that they secretly wish would go away? (278)

“One hypothesis is that very few would actually enforce the norm, but no one knows this. If people estimate the willingness to enforce based on the willingness to comply, and they comply based on the false belief that others will enforce, they become trapped in pluralistic ignorance—an equilibrium in which few people would actually enforce the norm but no one realizes this. However, this equilibrium can be extremely fragile. As in the Andersen story [The Emperor’s New Clothes], all that is needed is a single child to laugh at the emperor and the spell will be broken (278).

“A more robust explanation is that most people really will enforce the norm, and for the same reason that they comply—social pressure from others in the group, for whom mere compliance is not enough. To the true believer, it is not sufficient that others go to the right art galleries, display the right body jewelry, purchase the right sports car, or support the right wing. They must do it for the right reason. Zealots believe that it is better not to comply at all than to do so simply to affirm social status (Kuran 1995a, p. 62). Such compliance lasts only so long as behavior can be monitored and social pressure is sufficient to induce acquiescence (Hechter 1987). Thus, true believers reserve special contempt for imposters. Those who comply for the wrong reason must worry about being exposed as counterfeit (278-9).

“The hypothesized anxiety is supported by research on the ‘illusion of transparency’ (Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec 1998). This refers to a tendency to overestimate the ability of others to monitor our internal states… (279).

“Applied to the emperor’s dilemma, the ‘illusion of transparency’ suggests that those who admire the emperor out of a desire for social approval fear that their posturing will be apparent to others. They then look for some way to confirm their sincerity. Enforcing the norm provides a low cost way to fake sincerity, to signal that one complies—not as an opportunist seeking approval—but as a true believer” (279).