Asymmetries in punishment propensity may drive the civilizing process

Article metrics


Norms about hygiene and violence have both shown a tendency to become increasingly strict, in the sense that the handling of bodily fluids and the use of violence have become increasingly restricted. The generality of this directional change across a large number of societies has not been captured by previous explanations. We propose an explanation of the directional change that is based on the aggregation of everyday interactions. This theory posits that directional norm change can come about if there is an asymmetry in punishment propensity between the people who prefer stricter norms and those who prefer looser norms. Asymmetry in punishment can arise from underlying asymmetry in the threat perceived, where a stricter-than-preferred behaviour is perceived as inherently less threatening than a looser one. We demonstrate the logic of the theory using a formal model and test some of its assumptions through survey experiments.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Simulations of norm change from looser to stricter behaviours.
Fig. 2: Propensity to punish non-preferred behaviour.
Fig. 3: Propensity to punish, and feelings of threat from non-preferred behaviour.


  1. 1.

    Elias, N. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations (Blackwell, Oxford, 2000).

  2. 2.

    Duerr, H. P. Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß Band 1–4 (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1988, 1994, 1995 and 1997).

  3. 3.

    Elias, N. Essays II: On Civilising Processes, State Formation and National Identity Vol. 15 (eds Kilminster, R. & Mennell, S.) (UCD Press, Dublin, 2008).

  4. 4.

    Mennell, S. & Goudsblom, J. Civilizing processes—myth or reality? A comment on Duerr’s critique of Elias. Comp. Stud. Soc. Hist. 39, 729–733 (1997).

  5. 5.

    Elias, N. Civilization and violence: on the state monopoly of physical violence and its infringements. Telos 1982, 134–154 (1982).

  6. 6.

    Eisner, M. Modernization, self‐control and lethal violence. The long‐term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective. Br. J. Criminol. 41, 618–638 (2001).

  7. 7.

    Klingenstein, S., Hitchcock, T. & DeDeo, S. The civilizing process in London’s Old Bailey. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 111, 9419–9424 (2014).

  8. 8.

    Pinker, S. The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes (Penguin, London, 2011).

  9. 9.

    Taylor, C. A., Hamvas, L., Rice, J., Newman, D. L. & DeJong, W. Perceived social norms, expectations, and attitudes toward corporal punishment among an urban community sample of parents. J. Urban Health 88, 254–269 (2011).

  10. 10.

    Eriksson, K., Strimling, P. & Coultas, J. C. Bidirectional associations between descriptive and injunctive norms. Organ. Behav. Human. Decis. Process. 129, 59–69 (2015).

  11. 11.

    Ikegami, E. The Taming of the Samurai. Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995).

  12. 12.

    Jarrick, A. & Söderberg, J. Spontaneous processes of civilization. The Swedish case. Ethnol. Eur. 23, 5–26 (1993).

  13. 13.

    Pah, A. R. et al. Economic insecurity and the rise in gun violence at US schools. Nat. Hum. Behav. 1, 0040 (2017).

  14. 14.

    Suri, J. AHR forum the rise and fall of an international counterculture, 1960–1975. Am. Hist. Rev. 114, 45–68 (2009).

  15. 15.

    Elias, N. The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Polity Press, Cambridge, 1996).

  16. 16.

    Cieri, R. L., Churchill, S. E., Franciscus, R. G., Tan, J. & Hare, B. Craniofacial feminization, social tolerance, and the origins of behavioral modernity. Curr. Anthropol. 55, 419–443 (2014).

  17. 17.

    Brauer, M. & Chekroun, P. The relationship between perceived violation of social norms and social control: situational factors influencing the reaction to deviance. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 35, 1519–1539 (2005).

  18. 18.

    Jost, J. T., Banaji, M. R. & Nosek, B. A. A decade of system justification theory: accumulated evidence of conscious and unconscious bolstering of the status quo. Polit. Psychol. 25, 881–919 (2004).

  19. 19.

    Eriksson, K., Andersson, P. A. & Strimling, P. Moderators of the disapproval of peer punishment. Group Process. Inter. Relat. 19, 152–168 (2016).

  20. 20.

    Bloom, P. How do morals change? Nature 464, 490–490 (2010).

  21. 21.

    Jarrick, A. & Söderberg, J. Människovärdet och Makten: Om Civiliseringsprocessen i Stockholm 1600–1850 (Stockholmia, Stockholm, 1994).

  22. 22.

    Funk, J. B., Baldacci, H. B., Pasold, T. & Baumgardner, J. Violence exposure in real-life, video games, television, movies, and the internet: is there desensitization? J. Adolesc. 27, 23–39 (2004).

  23. 23.

    Helman, C. G. “Feed a cold, starve a fever”—folk models of infection in an English suburban community, and their relation to medical treatment. Cult. Med. Psychiatry 2, 107–137 (1978).

  24. 24.

    Wilcock, A., Pun, M., Khanona, J. & Aung, M. Consumer attitudes, knowledge and behaviour: a review of food safety issues. Trends Food Sci. Technol. 15, 56–66 (2004).

  25. 25.

    Wright, R. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (Vintage, New York, NY, 2001).

  26. 26.

    Zolotor, A. J. & Puzia, M. E. Bans against corporal punishment: a systematic review of the laws, changes in attitudes and behaviours. Child. Abus. Rev. 19, 229–247 (2010).

  27. 27.

    Dunning, E. & Hughes, J. Norbert Elias and Modern Sociology: Knowledge, Interdependence, Power, Process (Bloomsbury, London, 2012).

  28. 28.

    Martijn, C., Tenbült, P., Merckelbach, H., Dreezens, E. & de Vries, N. K. Getting a grip on ourselves: challenging expectancies about loss of energy after self-control. Social. Cogn. 20, 441–460 (2002).

  29. 29.

    Wouters, C. Informalization: Manners and Emotions Since 1890 (Sage, London, 2007).

  30. 30.

    Collins, R. Four theories of informalization and how to test them. Hum. Fig. 3, (2014).

  31. 31.

    Wouters, C. Sex and Manners: Female Emancipation in the West 1890–2000 (Sage, London, 2004).

  32. 32.

    Exline, J. J. & Lobel, M. The perils of outperformance: sensitivity about being the target of a threatening upward comparison. Psychol. Bull. 125, 307–337 (1999).

  33. 33.

    Fisher, J. D., Nadler, A. & Whitcher-Alagna, S. Recipient reactions to aid. Psychol. Bull. 91, 27–54 (1982).

  34. 34.

    Monin, B., Sawyer, P. J. & Marquez, M. J. The rejection of moral rebels: resenting those who do the right thing. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 95, 76–93 (2008).

  35. 35.

    Parks, C. D. & Stone, A. B. The desire to expel unselfish members from the group. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 99, 303–310 (2010).

  36. 36.

    Haidt, J. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, New York, NY, 2012).

  37. 37.

    Inglehart, R. Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies Vol. 19 (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1997).

  38. 38.

    Nisbett, R. E. & Cohen, D. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1996).

  39. 39.

    Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L. & Jordan, A. H. Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 34, 1096–1109 (2008).

  40. 40.

    Yamagishi, T. et al. The private rejection of unfair offers and emotional commitment. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 106, 11520–11523 (2009).

  41. 41.

    Cannon, W. B. Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage (Appleton–Century–Crofts, New York, NY, 1929).

  42. 42.

    Jansen, A., Nguyen, X., Karpitsky, V., Mettenleiter, M. & Loewy, A. D. Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science 270, 644–646 (1995).

  43. 43.

    Bolles, R. C. & Fanselow, M. S. A perceptual–defensive–recuperative model of fear and pain. Behav. Brain Sci. 3, 291–301 (1980).

  44. 44.

    Curtis, V. & Biran, A. Dirt, disgust, and disease: is hygiene in our genes? Pers. Biol. Med. 44, 17–31 (2001).

  45. 45.

    Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments. Am. Econ. Rev. 90, 980–994 (2000).

  46. 46.

    Perry, D. G. & Perry, L. C. in Learning in Children: Progress in Cognitive Development Research (eds Bisanz, J., Bisanz, G. L. & Kail, R.) 105–136 (Springer, New York, NY, 1983).

  47. 47.

    Young, H. P. The evolution of conventions. Econometrica 61, 57–84 (1993).

  48. 48.

    Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J. Culture and the Evolutionary Process (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1985).

  49. 49.

    Azar, O. H. What sustains social norms and how they evolve? The case of tipping. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 54, 49–64 (2004).

  50. 50.

    Azar, O. H. Evolution of social norms with heterogeneous preferences: a general model and an application to the academic review process. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 65, 420–435 (2008).

  51. 51.

    Strimling, P., Enquist, M. & Eriksson, K. Repeated learning makes cultural evolution unique. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 106, 13870–13874 (2009).

  52. 52.

    Eriksson, K., Cownden, D., Ehn, M. & Strimling, P. ‘Altruistic’ and ‘antisocial’ punishers are one and the same. Rev. Behav. Econ. 1, 209–221 (2014).

  53. 53.

    Eriksson, K. & Strimling, P. Injunctive versus functional inferences from descriptive norms: comment on Gelfand and Harrington. J. Cross-Cult. Psychol. 46, 1330–1332 (2015).

  54. 54.

    Hayes, A. F. Introduction to Mediation, Moderation, and Conditional Process Analysis: A Regression-Based Approach (Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2013).

  55. 55.

    Freeman, M. C. et al. Systematic review: Hygiene and health: systematic review of handwashing practices worldwide and update of health effects. Trop. Med. Int. Health 19, 906–916 (2014).

  56. 56.

    Green, P. & Ward, T. The transformation of violence in Iraq. Br. J. Criminol. 49, 609–627 (2009).

Download references


This research was supported by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation grant 2016.0167 and 2015.0005 and the Professor Roy Weir Career Development Fellowship. No funder had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

M.d.B. and P.S. designed the study and collected the data. All authors analysed the data. P.S. and K.E. wrote the paper.

Correspondence to Pontus Strimling.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results.

Life Sciences Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Further reading