Leaders who make sudden changes to the rules may encounter a backlash from their communities. The problem arises when a community’s dominant social norms do not align with the change the leadership wishes to pursue. It’s a challenge that all leaders face, whether they’re leading countries, cities, or companies.
Over at the NYU Development Research Institute blog, Bill Easterly points to a recent story in the New York Times and suggests that economists’ recent work on social norms, culture, and development is an encouraging trend. (He suggests the work of NYU economist Alberto Bisin.)
The article centers on a social norm about beauty in China, namely that fair skin is preferable to weathered skin. Like many beaches, Qingdao No. 1 Beach is adorned with umbrellas and even tents to shade people from the sun. But to protect their faces, some women adopt the additional precaution of wearing nylon masks while out from the cover of shade.
“I’m afraid of getting dark,” said the mask-wearer, Yao Wenhua, 58, upon emerging from the seaweed-choked waters of this seaside city in China’s eastern Shandong Province. Eager to show why she sacrificed fashion for function, Ms. Yao, a retired bus driver, peeled the nylon over her forehead to reveal a pale, unwrinkled face.
“A woman should always have fair skin,” she said proudly. “Otherwise people will think you’re a peasant.”
As economic conditions improve in China, the demand for leisure activities rises and some women find new ways, including masks, to protect their skin while enjoying the outdoors. The motivations for avoiding sun-exposure aside, the norm seems efficient from a health perspective as it leaves women less vulnerable to sun-related skin conditions.
Whether attitudes about sun-exposure will shift as incomes continue to rise in China remains to be seen. After recent press on the masks, Qingdao’s shop owners reported that the local government tried to discourage sales. It’s not clear why local authorities would do this but the fact that some women continue to go to great lengths to protect their skin, despite changing economic incentives and alleged government bans, is a testament to how persistent social norms can be.