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Human sociality is governed by two types of social norms: injunctive norms, which prescribe what people ought to do, and descriptive norms, which reflect what people actually do. The process by which these norms emerge and their causal influences on cooperative behavior over time are not well understood. Here, we study these questions through social norms influencing mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leveraging 2 years of data from the United States (18 time points; n = 915), we tracked mask wearing and perceived injunctive and descriptive mask wearing norms as the pandemic unfolded. Longitudinal trends suggested that norms and behavior were tightly coupled, changing quickly in response to public health recommendations. In addition, longitudinal modeling revealed that descriptive norms caused future increases in mask wearing across multiple waves of data collection. These cross-lagged causal effects of descriptive norms were large, even after controlling for non-social beliefs and demographic variables. Injunctive norms, by contrast, had less frequent and generally weaker causal effects on future mask wearing. During uncertain times, cooperative behavior is more strongly driven by what others are actually doing, rather than what others think ought to be done.


These authors contributed equally to this work: Samantha L. Heiman and Scott Claessens.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.