Publication date: Mar 11, 2024
Global challenges like the climate crisis and pandemic outbreaks require collective responses where people quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Social norms are potential solutions, but only if they themselves are flexible enough. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study norm formation and decay in real-world contexts. We tracked empirical and normative expectations about social distancing and empirical and normative expectations of sanctioning from June 2021 to February 2022 to explore how norms and meta norms evolved as COVID-19 risk decreased and increased. We found that norms and meta norms partially coevolve with risk dynamics, although they recover with some delay. This implies that norms should be enforced as soon as risk increases. We therefore tested how sanctioning intentions vary for different hypothetical norms and find them to increase with a clear meta norm of sanctioning, yet decrease with a clear social norm of distance. In conclusion, social norms evolve spontaneously with changing risk, but might not be adaptive enough when the lack of meta norms of sanctioning introduce tolerance for norm violations. Moreover, norm nudges can potentially have negative externalities if strengthening the social norm increases tolerance for norm violations. These results put some limits to social norms as solutions to guide behaviour under risk. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Social norm change: drivers and consequences’.