Why we tend not to apply social norms – ScienceDaily


When passers-by witness a violation of social norms, they confront the culprit – especially if the violation is serious. While this seems logical, the opposite is actually true. The more serious the violation of the norm, the more reluctant people will be to reprimand the person who committed it. Their fear of retaliation is too great.

Imagine a group of travelers witnessing two cases of garbage in a train station. A person throws a cup of coffee on the platform. Another person throws out not only a cup of coffee, but a whole garbage bag. Who is most likely to be confronted and berated by passers-by? Although throwing away a garbage bag is considered the biggest violation of the norm, this behavior did not elicit a stronger reaction from witnesses. This is the result of a study conducted by Bettina Rockenbach, professor of experimental and behavioral economics at the University of Cologne, Loukas Balafoutas (University of Innsbruck) and Nikos Nikiforakis (University of New York Abu Dhabi). The research team studied how people react to violations, large and small, of social norms in public spaces. The results of the study “Altruistic punishment does not increase with the severity of standards violations in the field” are published in Nature Communications.

The study refutes the hypothesis that more serious offenses tend to be punished more severely than smaller offenses. Rockenbach and his colleagues have staged small violations (throwing a cup of coffee) and large violations (throwing a cup of coffee and a bag of garbage) at stations in Germany and recorded the reaction of travelers in more than 800 trial. The implicit assumption was that passers-by would react more strongly if more garbage was thrown away, hence the violation of the norm was greater. It is a principle that has spread from the biblical “eye for an eye” to modern legal philosophy, which demands fair punishment. It has also been proven in laboratory experiments. However, the magnitude of the violation did not affect the likelihood of the litter carrier being reprimanded – nor the intensity of the reprimand.

Travelers have more negative emotions towards the larger violation and felt that it should be reprimanded more severely. Despite these emotional reactions, however, those interviewed admitted that they would be reluctant to confront or punish such violations in real settings.

Scientists explain this reluctance by the perceived risk of retaliation from the offender. The greater the violation of the norm, the greater the retaliation can be. Witnesses feared that in the event of a more serious violation of social norms, the person’s reaction would be stronger when confronted or reprimanded. The study shows that social self-regulation has its limits. Up to a point, we berate each other for bad behavior. But in cases of more extreme norm violations, social self-regulation no longer works and we need authorities, police and security personnel.

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Material provided by University of Cologne – Universität zu Köln. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.

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