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A stepping stone approach to understanding harmful norms. Theory and evidence from Somalia

4 novembre 2020 ore 12:00 - 13:00

Aula Luiss Research Seminars, Sede di Luiss

Speaker: Eliana La Ferrara , Università Bocconi


Harmful social norms often persist despite legislation against
them. If the goal is to eliminate a harmful norm in the long run, can it be
beneficial to introduce a `mildly harmful' alternative in the short run? We
propose a model with social interactions where individuals can choose among N
traits. We provide conditions under which an intermediate trait can act as a `stepping
stone' to transition to the `good' equilibrium, as opposed to becoming an
absorbing state. We then validate the model assumptions using original data
from Somalia, where female genital cutting (FGC) is almost universal and
individuals can choose between uncut, mildly invasive cut (Sunna), and
extremely invasive cut (Pharaonic). We find that people's perceptions about the
prevalence of different types of FGC in their community correlate with choice
and that costs and benefits of Sunna vs. Pharaonic are ranked according to
model assumptions. Using a cohort analysis, we show a sharp transition from
almost universal Pharaonic to almost universal Sunna in correspondence with the
`entry' of the latter among the options supported by religious leaders. Our analysis
underlines the importance of considering intermediate alternatives when
formulating policies against harmful norms.

(with S. Gulesci, S. Jindani, D. Smerdon, M. Sulaiman and P. Young)