"Signage 55 speed limit"/David Lofink/CC BY 2.0
Source: "Signage 55 speed limit"/David Lofink/CC BY 2.0

We are not expected to break the law. Unless the law is a posted speed limit. We are not expected to disregard workplace policy. Unless the policy forbids browsing the internet. We are not expected to lie. Except when we receive an unwanted gift and must feign delight. How do people learn when deviance is expected, when it is tolerated, and when it leads to punishment? How do we teach this obscure social calculus to people like my autistic daughter, Sam, who wonders why no driver is traveling less than ten miles per hour above the limit?  In other words, are there rules to determine when social norms override explicit guidelines?

Some situations, such as the need for “little white lies,” are easy. A prosocial lie, one told in order to benefit another person and causing no harm, is almost always judged to be preferable to the truth.  We tell the guest who spilled red wine on the expensive rug that the stain will surely disappear with a dab of salt or club soda. (I was that guest.) We tell our friends that their new outfits make them look beautiful, even as we cringe internally. Some lies are good: They obviously foster social cohesion, they improve another person’s well-being, and they harm nobody.  Children learn early on that good lies are preferable to hurtful truths.

Unless the hurtful truth helps. When a teacher critiques a student’s paper, the teacher assumes that the comments will help the student improve as a writer. Already we are running into problems here with the good lie, as many parenting experts have discovered. Undue praise hinders a child’s development of grit and resilience, so perhaps some prosocial lies are not really so prosocial. And maybe the friend should be told that she looks pallid in canary yellow and should never wear that outfit to a job interview—or anywhere she needs to make a good impression.  

"Fruitcake"/Matthew Bietz/CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: "Fruitcake"/Matthew Bietz/CC BY-SA 2.0

Nevertheless, most lies of the “Delicious fruitcake!” variety fall easily into the benign category.

Similarly, some lies clearly constitute transgressions. These antisocial lies, lies told to benefit the liar, rarely merit social approbation. No parent intentionally teaches a child to claim that s/he spent the afternoon at the library when in reality the destination was an unsupervised party. That is a bad lie and we all recognize it as wrong.

The challenge comes with explaining why people resort to lies that fall somewhere in the middle, neither clearly defensible nor clearly indefensible. With some misrepresentations, the owner is known to be self-interested and yet we encourage the lie because avoiding a confrontation serves everybody's interests.  If I say, untruthfully, that I must reject a social invitation due to a prior engagement when in fact I simply do not want to join the person who extended the invitation, I am helping myself and also protecting the other person's feelings.  Some lies can be both pro- and antisocial.

Next consider stealing.  If I spy a package on my neighbor’s doorstep and abscond with it, we all agree that I should be charged as a criminal with theft.  If I take a box of pens from a store without paying, I commit shoplifting.  But suppose I take a box of pens from the office where I work. Do my coworkers consider me to be a thief, or do many of them engage in the same behavior and think of it as unpaid compensation? Certainly the business owner would argue that taking pens constitutes theft, but would it be grounds for dismissal or even a reprimand from a supervisor?

Researchers have learned that most people reason differently about these scenarios depending on several factors:  whether or not the rule violation was an act of commission or omission (doing something versus allowing something to happen); whether or not the victim was an individual or an anonymous “they” (e.g., a large corporation); and whether other people are behaving in a similar way.

No one would defend my decision to steal a package from my neighbor. The word “neighbor” evokes the image of a specific person or family. I have harmed some particular person with my transgression, and these are the acts we judge most harshly. Shoplifting is also theft, but most people consider it to be somewhat less reprehensible. The harmed party will not experience the loss as directly.  Even if we acknowledge that we will bear the burden of the theft by paying higher prices for merchandise, we still consider the crime to be less antisocial than stealing from my neighbor. When we get to the case of taking office supplies from our own workplace, most of us do not explicitly approve, but our judgment depends largely on the norms of the particular workplace. If morale is low or the business employs thousands of workers, the likelihood of rationalizing such behavior is greater.  How do we know whether it is tolerated? Unfortunately for my autistic child, the answer is that we observe our coworkers—their explicit behavior and their responses to each other.

Two specific scenarios bear out the role of group behavior in determining when rules will be violated: littering and speeding. Both are against the law, and both occur regularly.

Most of us consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens, yet we regularly exceed the speed limit by an amount that has been deemed acceptable, even by the police. Communities that strictly enforce their speed limits, that expect drivers to obey the law, are derisively termed “speed traps.” So, the autistic daughter wonders, if the speed limit reads 55 mph but the police ignore every driver recorded at 64 mph, why not raise the speed limit to 64 mph? Or why not enforce the law?

The answer boils down to expedience and to social norms, and in particular a distinction between two kinds of social norms, descriptive and injunctive. As articulated by the social psychologist R. B. Cialdini, descriptive norms refer to how people behave, whereas injunctive norms refer to behaviors that community members believe they ought to support. Cialdini and his coauthors explored this distinction by running a set of experiments observing how prone people are to littering. Unsurprisingly, drivers who found a flyer inserted in their car’s windshield were far more likely to discard the flyer on a parking garage floor if the floor was already strewn with trash. The descriptive norm in this case was determined by evidence derived from an observation of the floor. If the floor was swept clean, most drivers put the flyer in their car, presumably to discard later in a trash receptacle. If the floor indicated a social acceptance of littering, more people dropped their flyer on the ground than held onto it. The drivers all likely understood the injunctive norm against littering, but without an explicit reminder that norm was not determinative of behavior.

So back to explaining speed limits. The engineers and city planners who determine speed limits do so for safety reasons. They consider factors such as traffic density, the presence of intersections, and curves in the road. Police officers only enforce the law against egregious offenders, because they cannot stop every driver and, I am guessing, they do not want the political backlash of angering so many citizens. Drivers generally prefer to reach their destination as quickly as possible, so they drive at the highest speed they deem physically safe and ticket-proof. If the speed limit is raised nine mph, they will likely assume the safe speed is nine mph above that new speed. How do they decide what speed is safe and ticket proof? Research shows that the most important determinant of speed is the descriptive norm established by their fellow drivers.

I became interested in parsing the difference between rules and norms when Sam came home from her summer job with a handbook outlining rules for excused absences. She may miss work without penalty if a family member dies. When she pressed her supervisor to clarify this rule, the boss informed her that no, pets do not count as family members. Does that mean, Sam asked me, that we are not supposed to love our pets as much as we love our human family members? As I explained to Sam that many people do love their pets as much or more than human relatives and that they do grieve, often claiming illness if a pet dies, I realized I was telling her to lie! I am encouraging antisocial mendacity, simply to save her paycheck in the event of a pet’s death. Or maybe not. Maybe the lie is prosocial, because it gives permission to others to feel deeply for their pets without having to confront their feelings about family members. We do have an injunctive norm that yes, we are supposed to love our human brethren more than our pets. Our genes’ “desire” to survive over generations (see The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins) probably gave rise to this norm. However, the behavior of people attests to the fact that loving our pets as full family members is the descriptive norm in our culture. It’s just easier for everyone, including the human resources department at work, to categorize that feeling as a health issue without openly sanctioning it. We all 

Even as I write that last sentence, it sounds absurd. The unwritten social rule is that we ignore the rule when a majority of society agrees we need the rule but many of us believe that violating it harms no one. I can only imagine how senseless that sounds to my daughter.

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