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Minding Norms: Mechanisms and Dynamics of Social Order in Agent Societies (Oxford Series on Cognitive Models and Architectures)

Conte, Rosaria, Andrighetto, Giulia and Campennl, Marco (eds.)
Oxford University Press USA: New York, NY, 2013
ISBN 9780199812677 (hb)

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Reviewed by Warren Thorngate
Carleton University

Cover of book Norms. Our behaviour is influenced by hundreds of thousands them -- norms ranging from word definitions, to the timing of tears at a funeral, to the placement of forks on a dinner table. We learn them through processes called socialization and education, and manifest them in norm-al ways. Many norms are ephemeral and some downright silly, but without them, societies could not develop or survive.

Despite its importance, the concept of a norm has until now eluded a crisp or fecund definition, and the processes by which people and norms exert their reciprocal influences have not been explored in detail. The contributors to Minding Norms have made bold steps to redefine the normative concept in a way that brings new life to explorations of how norms influence and are influenced by those who share them.

Noting the limitations of traditional descriptive and prescriptive definitions of norms (behavioural regularities versus obligations), the authors develop a social-cognitive framework to analyse and simulate how norms emerge, exert their influence, and change with their adoption. The centrepiece of their efforts (Chapters 7-9) is the specification of a “normative agent architecture” (p. 6) called EMIL (EMergence In the Loop), inspired by ideas from cognitive architectures and implemented in EMIL-S software. Included in EMIL are modules for recognizing norms, adopting norms, internalizing norms, and complying with them. Beliefs, goals and intentions figure prominently in these modules, as do inputs from social interactions.

The result is a refreshing advance in our conceptions of what likely goes on in the heads and hearts of people considering norms when choosing their social outputs, and of the normative consequences of their considerations. The conceptions are nicely illustrated with simulations comparing “norm detectives” with “social conformers,” and with simulations of norm emergence and regulation derived from content analyses of Wikipedia editorial debates.

The ideas presented in this book deserve an audience beyond agent-based modellers eager to examine flow charts and track wiggles in time-series plots, especially an audience of more empirically-inclined social scientists. There are, for example, dozens of links between the authors’ ideas and the research of social psychologists interested in aspects of norm inculcation and use. Many of the assumptions of EMIL could be tested or instantiated by research on socialization, social comparison, conformity and minority influence, social motives, norms of equity and reciprocity, attitude formation and change. Incorporating the results of such research into the modules of EMIL would likely increase the utility of the former and the realism of the latter. Sequel anyone?


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