Social Norms vs Market Norms

Social norms govern whether you are willing to help a friend move or cook dinner for your family. Market norms govern what you are willing to do for how much money. In an experiment to show how social norms vary from market norms, Dan Ariely created a computer task where volunteers had to drag circles into boxes. He then divided his volunteers into 3 groups.

  • Group 1 got $5.00.
  • Group 2 got either 50 cents or 10 cents.
  • Group 3 was asked to do him a favor.

Not surprisingly, group 1 – the highest paid group – outperformed group 2, but group 3 – the volunteer group – outperformed them all.

He went on to talk about how that affects employer-employee relationships. While market norms are at work, employees are asking for a lot of social norm like stuff, working 24×7, giving up holidays, etc. When they don’t repay in “social norm” stuff like time off when the kids are sick, employees immediately feel cheated.

What was interesting to me from a “Would you do it again for free?” perspective was:

“when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish.”

To me, that would mean that once you are paid to work on open source software, it would be hard to go back to doing it for free.

Although based on other research I’ve read, I think open source software developers – ones who did for free, were paid, and then were no longer paid – would move to a different open source software project rather than quit altogether.

Another tidbit, relevant to Friends of GNOME: gifts don’t change how hard volunteers work unless it’s pointed out what the gifts cost.