Last summer, U of C law professor Randal C. Picker, AB'80, AM'82, JD'85, took his 8-year-old son Benjamin to his first baseball game at Comiskey Park. The outing turned into a father-son lesson on one of Pickerís favorite subjects: social norms. As the national anthem played, they watched members of the crowd stand up and take off their hats without prompting from placards or other cues. The crowd just knew what to do. And, as Benjamin pointed out, despite the fans" hunger and thirst and the vendors" eagerness to make a sale, concession sales ceased.
The evolution of such social norms, societyís unwritten codes of conduct, has intrigued Law School scholars whose inquiries rely on understanding how and why people make decisions. Besides Picker, the Chicago cadre of social-norms theorists includes Tracey L. Meares, JDí91, who focuses on the relationship between law enforcement and poverty; Cass R. Sunstein, an expert in constitutional law; and Dan M. Kahan, who examines the social meanings of criminal punishments.
A recent New Yorker article called the groupís study of social norms "the most provocative new movement in the legal academy." For his part, the 38-year-old Picker, recently named the Law Schoolís first Paul and Theo Leffmann professor of commercial law, has contributed to the field a new tool for mapping changes in norms. In a computer program, Picker uses game theory to illustrate a fictional society in which, as in life, people tend to observe their neighbors" actions and copy those that yield higher social standing or financial gain. Picker hopes the program, detailed in the fall 1997 University of Chicago Law Review, will help lawmakers determine when legal mandates could encourage desirable social changes and when changes are best left to evolve on their own.
"In my artificial society, we can test ideas and control certain factors," explains Picker, who trained as both an economist and a lawyer. ìI can play "what "if" in my computer communities. The question is, how do we get everyone to choose the best option?"
The games demonstrate how "players" in a "neighborhood," represented by color-coded squares on a computer-generated grid, shuffle their positions as a result of accepting or rejecting the behavior of other players. Some of the modeled changes may have been prompted by laws. For example, the players' positions might shift on the grid in a pattern that reflects how societyís use of seat belts has changed over the years. To illustrate unman dated changes, the program might similarly model the growing tendency among Americans to recycle. Picker now plans to refine the program to account for the transaction costs of the players' decisions.
"Economists are often thought to believe that the social context in which we do things is irrelevant," he says. "That may be foolish. This gives us another set of constraints that we need to take into account to understand how people make decisions."-Catherine Behan