The Usefulness of Social Norm Theory in Empirical Business Ethics Research: A Review and Suggestions for Future Research

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In response to recent calls to extend the underlying theories used in the literature (O’Fallon and Butterfield in J Bus Ethics 59(4):375–413, 2005; Craft in J Bus Ethics 117(2):221–259, 2013), we review the usefulness of social norm theory in empirical business ethics research. We begin by identifying the seeds of social norm theory in Adam Smith’s (in: Raphael and Macfie (eds) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, the Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1759/1790) seminal work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Next, we introduce recent theory in social norm activation by Bicchieri (The grammar of society: The nature and dynamics of social norms, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006) and compare the new theory to two theoretical frameworks found in the literature: Kohlberg’s (in: Goslin (ed) Handbook of socialization theory and research, Rand McNally, Chicago, IL, 1969; in: Lickona (ed) Moral development and behavior, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1976) theory of moral development and Cialdini and Trost’s (in: Gilbert et al. (eds) The handbook of social psychology, Oxford University Press, Boston, 1998) taxonomy of social norms. We argue that the new theory provides useful insights by emphasizing the ability of situational cues and information to generate common expectations for social/moral norms. The theory is particularly useful for empirical research in business ethics because it gives both organizational and individual factors a role in motivating norm-based behavior. To demonstrate this usefulness, we present examples where the theory has been effectively applied in experimental accounting research to generate new insights. We conclude by citing specific examples where the theory may prove useful in empirical business ethics research.