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Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Norm Police

When somebody butts in line, many people usually just grumble under their teeth, but there are a few folks who confront that norm-violator.  A USN&WR article suggests that we ought to be grateful for these norm police:


Social scientists call the behavior "altruistic punishment": the willingness to step in and enforce societal norms even if doing so carries little chance of reward and significant personal cost. Psychological theories and economic models suggest that people should make decisions about how to behave in groups based on their own best interests rather than the good of the group. In other words, taking an inconsiderate clod to task for butting into line in front of you makes perfect sense, but how to explain the person who bawls out a stranger for butting into line behind them? And yet the altruistic punishment impulse comes up time and again in daily life and psychology experiments.

Take this classic trust game: You give a group of people some money--$20, say--and a set of rules. Players can contribute any amount to a common pool with the promise of a modest return, or they can "free ride," pocketing their initial stake plus a share in the group profits. If all of the players cooperate fully, everyone comes out ahead. But if one player acts selfishly, he'll do even better. You don't have to be a psychologist to guess how soon the whole system breaks down. Allow honest players to punish cheaters with a fine, however, and most will jump at the chance--even if doing so costs a significant portion of their profits. "The tendency to punish free riders is very confusing," says James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California-Davis, "because if there are only a few punishers, the cost is very high." . . .

Humans . . . regularly cooperate with complete strangers, even when there's no reasonable expectation of a personal reward, genetic or otherwise. Increasingly, researchers say, it's looking as if our tendency to sanction breaches of social norms is the key to human cooperation.

Posted by Daniel Solove on June 11, 2005 at 12:43 PM in Culture, Daniel Solove | Permalink


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The study of norm enforcement is fascinating, and is occurring in multiple disciplines, law among them. Being a norm enforcer seems to have some kind of status payoff -- it is a way of publicly demonstrating your commitment to the rule system, a rule system that you have internalized and associated with your identity. And it benefits others who both subscribe to and follow the same rule system. There is a fair amount of social psychology that has been done on norm formation and enforcement, as well as history, behavioral economics, and game theory, of course.

I first got interested in this topic by wondering what the speed limit truly is when nearly 100% of the drivers on a given highway violate it. Just yesterday the Governors Highway Safety Association took the position it's the number posted on the signs, no matter what the police or nearly all drivers seem to think, but I'm not so sure.

Posted by: Bruce | Jun 14, 2005 12:33:36 AM

Oh dear god, those horrid people who demand that their neighbors remove the wrong-colored siding (the outfit I work for actually had a siding case recently, god help us) and punish schoolkids for wearing the wrong-shaped ties to graduation actually serve a social role?!!?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 12, 2005 10:46:15 AM

Several years ago there was a law review article on the informal legal systems that quickly develop while people are waiting in line. I wish I could remember who wrote it. I thought it was a clever look at the common law, or perhaps the natural law, of queues. It covered cheaters and norms, and all that stuff. Anyone remember that article?

Posted by: John Steele | Jun 12, 2005 1:27:15 AM

And the best and most classic example of "norm police" exists in the several States' character and fitness examiners. The criteria being, if we don't like your sort, you have violated the "norm," for which the eternal punishment is banishment from the practice of law --or, in the alternative, making it unGodly expensive and take years as compared to those fitting the 'norm.'(Has SSRN ever done a statistical study on this?)

The checkered history: subjective "norm"- violating group-screening criteria have resulted in the irrational exlusion from bar admission of wide swaths of people, including European Jews, Women, Communist Party members, African Americans, and now the latest fad is the Disabled. (The disabled people have to be kept out because it is too expensive and inconvenient to retrofit America's Courtrooms to accommodate the disabled, and they are a pain to 'normal' people anyway, and further people who are used to preying on the disabled in commercial transactions or gaining an upper hand at the expense of the disabled in the competition for a good job might lose their lawsuits and lifetime opportunities if disabled people are ever provided a level playing field in the Courts). No doubt, disabled people and their appeals for equality are unpopular.

Pinpoint citation to an actual example of subjective 'norm police' criteria (or what every prospective bar applicant should know but is too afraid to ask): Thomas A. Pobjecky, General Counsel for the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, publicly wrote in The Bar Examiner (publication by the National Conference of Bar Examiners law schools do not teach their law students about), that he believes there is a correlation between people whose last name ends with the letter "P" and the "P"-criteria placing an applicant at risk for bad conduct should he or she be certified for bar admission.

A joke, right? If people do not believe such an irrational 'norm' policy actually exists and operates upon bar admission in a State, check out footnote 26, and ask the question why a trusted public official in charge of something as important as a State's bar admissions would ever say something like that and not at least limit the remark by a qualification that maybe it is a spoof: Thomas A. Pobjecky,“Everything You Wanted To Know About Bar Admissions And Psychiatric Problems But Were Too Paranoid To Ask,” The Bar Examiner, volume 58, p. 14 n.26 (1989) (containing no spoof-limiting language).

And don't forget to check out the Florida Board of Bar Examiners "1985 protocol," they do not like to tell bar applicants about (detailed in The Bar Examiner)-- the 'norm' policy by which they admittedly subject bar applicants they don't like to the financial expense and delay of additional "investigation," "informal," and sometimes "formal" hearings, knowing full well they will ultimately have to let these 'norm'-violating bar applicant transgressors into the profession. This unwritten 'norm' policy is applied because the 'norm'-punishing Florida Bar Examiners have proceeded upon evidence they know is too weak to sustain the Specifications they make, while they have perceived a 'norm'-violater who everyone knows cannot go unpunished.

Query: isn't there SOME overriding federal taxpayer interest in cutting such irrational, unnecessary red tape posing a threat to the integrity of repayment of hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans to the Federal Student Loan Program, utilized to underwrite the 'norm'-violators' professional educations and journeys to bar admission?

In Florida, the Bar Examiners don't care about that, the "P-criteria is relevant while Federal Student Loans are not -- until the Florida Supreme Court gets the courage to pronounce there really is an Americans With Disabilities Act that applies to Florida lawyers and Florida's Courts, the Bar Examiners will continue to follow Florida law.

And as long as these issues do not come up for discussion out in the open, the 'norm' police will obediently march on, but not any different drummer who aspires to a law career.

I expect I will be taken to task for speaking my mind as a disabled person, but anyone who wants to do so, while you are addressing the sad state of disabled people's fates in bar admission and the courts, also consider and address the 40-50% viewpoint discrepancy between how disabled people see it vs. 'norm'-al people as found by the Judicial Council of California when they surveyed their State Courts in implementing the ADA (discussed in Jones, “And Access For All: Accommodating Individuals With Disabilities In The California Courts,” 32 USF L. Rev. (Fall, 1997)).

A more significant consideration -- the example of what happens when the Supreme Court overlooks the need to decide a bar admission case for too many decades. The 'norm' police run amok.

Posted by: Mary Katherine Day-Petrano | Jun 11, 2005 3:48:42 PM

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