"A stepping stone approach to understanding harmful norms. Theory and evidence from Somalia" (with (S. Gulesci, S. Jindani, D. Smerdon, M. Sulaiman and P. Young)
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.