« George Mason University School of Law Reported to be Renaming Law School | Main | Litigant Autonomy After Scalia--and Thanks! »

Friday, April 01, 2016

New SSRN Paper: Five-Second Rules vs. Five-Second Standards

New today on SSRN is my draft article, Five-Second Rules vs. Five-Second Standards. It follows indirectly on my work on biases and heuristics in and epistemological questions concerning the First Amendment, as well as my interest in non-legal authority, although the proximate inspiration for the paper was more personal. Of special note is that it is the first paper to address this question in the legal literature. Here's the abstract:

The study of non-legal social norms has opened up new vistas for legal academic engagement with a variety of phenomena that, although not expressed through positive law, nevertheless have powerful implications for the facilitation and regulation of social conduct. Many of the epistemological, behavioral, and normative questions raised by positive law are placed in close relief when examined in the context of other forms of “law.” An enduring question in law is the “rules vs. standards” debate, and an enduring element of the “rules vs. standards” debate is the question whether the two stand in stark opposition to one another or exist on a continuum of ruleness and standardness. I examine this question, and raise others, through an interrogation of a classic, well-accepted, rule-like social norm: the “five-second rule,” which posits that it is acceptable to eat food that has dropped on the ground, provided that it has not remained there longer than five seconds. This is the first examination of the five-second rule in the legal academic literature, although it has been discussed in other fields.

The heart of the Article is an empirical study—the first such study in the legal literature. At a law school faculty lunch, a close count was kept of subjects’ responses upon dropping food on the ground. A variety of scenarios were involved, including inadvertent food-dropping by the experimental subjects themselves and a series of planned incidents in which the tester arranged for a sub-optimal number of cookies to be offered for dessert, and then conspicuously dropped a particularly attractive chocolate chip cookie on the ground and signaled that anyone wishing to pick it up was welcome to it. Preliminary results revealed three things: 1) most subjects observed the five-second rule, but not closely, with subjects indicating a willingness to pick up and eat food as long as seven or eight seconds after it had dropped on the ground; 2) despite prevailing norms of cooperation and civility, subjects were willing to fight, to the point of wanton brutality, over the last cookie; and 3) the primary variable affecting willingness to pick up food past the five-second point was the subject’s number of years in teaching post-tenure. Indeed, in situations where food remained on the ground past five seconds, a statistically significant cohort of senior professors waited until the room had cleared following the event, and then returned when they thought no one was looking to pick up the food and take it back to their offices. This experiment, relying as it does on a limited and non-representative sample of experimental subjects, in a situation far removed from standard real-world environments, and despite multiple failures to replicate the result, offers highly significant results that are easily generalized to suggest—for the first time in the legal literature—dramatic descriptive and normative implications.

Following a lengthy recitation of the experiment and its results, this Article spins out a number of novel conclusions appearing in this Article for the first time in the legal literature. First, and somewhat counter-intuitively, it turns out that even the five-second “rule” is, in fact, a standard. This suggests that even carefully reticulated rule specifications do not and cannot eliminate room for careful situational judgment and discretion. That conclusion has important implications for a variety of laws and social norms, including speed limits, Chevron deference, and the categoricalism vs. balancing debate in constitutional law. Second, interrogating the five-second rule has important implications for the question whether compliance with legal rules and social norms rests on an adequate epistemological or policy basis. The five-second rule remains a powerful constraint on conduct despite the fact that the rule has little basis in scientific fact and relies heavily on behavioral heuristics untethered from sound policy. Moreover, and despite its disconnection from sound or rational behavior, the rule itself reifies wider disparities and inequalities in access to relevant information. Studies in other disciplines show that while only 56 percent of men surveyed were even aware of the five-second rule, fully 70 percent of women knew of it. These gendered disparities demand additional study. Finally, and in keeping with important recent work on “sticky norms,” “sticky slopes,” “sticky defaults,” “sticky knowledge,” “sticky expectations,” “sticky metaphors,” and “sticky compliance,” the Article is the first in the legal literature to argue that the five-second rule is itself an example of a “sticky rule.” Literally.


Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 1, 2016 at 08:13 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.