Evaluating the Effect of Descriptive Norms on Political Tolerance

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Recent scholarship has documented changing norms toward political tolerance and an increase in intolerant beliefs in the United States. Descriptive norm theory attributes attitudinal and behavioral changes to beliefs about how we perceive other people think and act. Applied to political tolerance, increasing the perception that society is more or less tolerant should result in corresponding changes among individuals. Neglected from this discussion, however, is the distinction between norms that are applied universally and norms that are applied to specific targets. Four studies show mixed support for descriptive norm theory with norms altering individual tolerance judgments mostly when applied universally. Norms aimed at a particularistic group fail to change tolerance judgments suggesting an important limitation to norm influence. Contrary to expectations, we uncover a reversal effect among Democrats whereby exposure to universalistic norms of intolerance leads to higher levels of tolerance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAmerican Politics Research
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • civil liberties
  • norms
  • public opinion
  • tolerance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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