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Taboos: Considering the Unthinkable


  • Fershtman, Chaim
  • Gneezy, Uri
  • Hoffman, Moshe


A taboo is an "unthinkable" action, that is, even the thought of violating it triggers social punishment. Taboos are the social "thought police," discouraging individuals from considering certain type of actions. We consider a simple model in which taboos are part of the definition of one's identity. Deliberating over breaking the taboo adds the action to the individual’s choice set and provides information on possible private benefits but is costly because it contradicts one's identity. The strength of the taboo is endogenously determined by the number of individuals that obey it without any consideration of its violation. We model stable taboos and examine how they can change and disappear over time as a result of changes in the distribution of private benefits gained from its violation. We assume that individuals are heterogeneous with respect to their attitudes towards social punishment. We then analyze the relationship between social heterogeneity and the strength as well as effectiveness of taboos, i.e., are taboos stronger in homogenous or heterogeneous societies? We extend our analysis and examine societies in which individuals may choose among several identities, characterized by different taboos or varying strengths of taboos. Having such a choice defines an evolutionary process with respect to identity: Some identities disappear while others flourish. We examine the characterization and the conditions giving rise to a multi-identity society.

Suggested Citation

  • Fershtman, Chaim & Gneezy, Uri & Hoffman, Moshe, 2008. "Taboos: Considering the Unthinkable," CEPR Discussion Papers 6854, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:6854

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Alvin E. Roth, 2007. "Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(3), pages 37-58, Summer.
    2. David Romer, 1984. "The Theory of Social Custom: A Modification and Some Extensions," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 99(4), pages 717-727.
    3. George A. Akerlof & Rachel E. Kranton, 2000. "Economics and Identity," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 115(3), pages 715-753.
    4. George A. Akerlof, 1980. "A Theory of Social Custom, of which Unemployment may be One Consequence," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 94(4), pages 749-775.
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    More about this item


    Identity; Social Norms; Taboos;

    JEL classification:

    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • H41 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods - - - Public Goods
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification

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