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Macy, M.W.

Macy, M.W.

Michael Macy, born in Clarksville, Tennessee, USA, in 1948. Ph.D. from Harvard University, Cambridge. Professor of Sociology at Cornell University, Ithaca.

Fellow (1 February 2002 – 30 June 2002)

The idea that co-operation promotes a vital community is deeply embedded in contemporary social science. So too is the idea that social norms enforce compliance with community obligations. During my five-month NIAS fellowship, I worked on a project that challenges both these assumptions. The “Emperor’s Dilemma” uses game theory and agent-based modeling to explore the ‘dark side’ of co-operation enforced by normative pressures. In this game, based on the Andersen fable, everyone privately wants to laugh at the Emperor but fears being criticized by the others as ‘unfit for office’. All then co-operate in the charade. The explanatory problem is not why people conform to an unpopular norm – that is easy, they fear social criticism. The question is why anyone who cannot see the Emperor’s clothes would enforce this norm in the first place? Game theory shows that enforcement of an unpopular norm can be a subgame perfect equilibrium (hence the threat of sanctions is credible) but cannot explain how a population falls into the trap. I use an agent-based computational model to look for clues. The model shows that ‘top down’ enforcement (e.g., by an autocratic regime, or in Andersen’s story, the ‘three rogues’) is not necessary, and that the trap can be entirely self-organising. Familiar examples of self-enforcing norms range from the comic to the tragic:

Fawning admiration for a highly prestigious but incomprehensible scholar (whose brilliant new ideas cannot be seen by intellectual lightweights);

Teenagers who seek peer acceptance by celebrating self-destructive behaviours and ridiculing ‘posers’ (whose conformity is insincere);

The ‘politically incorrect’ whose exposure affirms the moral standing of those who are sufficiently indignant.