Violations of Social Norms Stretch the Imagination

Our sense of what can happen is constrained by beliefs about what should happen.

Posted Jan 21, 2021

Tyler Merbler/Wikimedia
Source: Tyler Merbler/Wikimedia

The last few months have been chock full of extraordinary events: a U.S. President attacking the legitimacy of an American election, senators and congressmen refusing to certify an electoral vote, an armed insurrection at the Capitol. News commentators have referred to these events as “unimaginable,” which is a strong word. Only logical contradictions, like a round square or a four-sided triangle, are truly unimaginable. But events like the Capitol insurrection are unimaginable in a different way: they lie outside the scope of ordinary possibility.

Psychologists who study how people reason about possibility find that our sense of what could happen is strongly constrained by our beliefs about what should happen. When contemplating future events or hypothetical outcomes, we fixate on events that conform to our expectations and ignore those that do not. Expectation-defying events are not just viewed as unlikely; they are viewed as impossible and thus unworthy of consideration. We don’t contemplate the possibility of an armed insurrection in the wake of a democratic election and then dismiss this possibility as unlikely. We never contemplate it at all.

Our tendency to view unusual events as impossible, rather than merely improbable, originates in childhood. Young children are skeptical of any event that violates the norms and regularities they are accustomed to. They claim it’s not possible to alter customs, traditions, cultural associations, rules of etiquette, or gender roles. They deny that a child could sing "Jingle Bells" at a birthday party, wear pajamas to the grocery store, or wear a bathing suit to school. They deny that adults could get together and change the name of dogs to "wugs," change the color of stoplights from red to purple, or change the side of the road we drive on. They claim it’s not possible to eat food with your hands, take a bath with your shoes on, or ask for something without saying “please.” And they reject the idea that a boy could wear makeup or a girl could play football.

These judgments are not absolute. Young children do show some recognition that violations of social norms are not truly impossible, like violations of physical laws. When explaining why people conform to social regularities, they cite reasons rather than causes—desires and permissions rather than capacities and capabilities. When asked whether anomalous events could occur on another planet, they agree that social anomalies could more often than physical anomalies, conceding that the citizens of another planet might call dogs "wugs" even if they couldn’t make rocks float in water.

While young children do show some awareness that social anomalies are possible, this awareness is largely implicit. It manifests itself in explanations or thought experiments and typically only when children are asked to consider many different anomalies. If you ask preschoolers, point-blank, whether a specific social anomaly is possible, most will say no. They claim the anomaly has not occurred in the past and will not occur in the future, no matter who is involved or why.

You may be concerned that children who claim a social anomaly couldn’t happen really mean that it shouldn’t happen—that they are commenting on the anomaly’s permissibility rather than its possibility. But that’s part of the point. If children’s understanding of what could happen is grounded in what they expect to happen, then they should confuse possibility with permissibility early on, before learning to reflect on their expectations.

My colleague Jonathan Phillips and I explored whether children truly conflate possibility with permissibility by asking them to evaluate both dimensions of the same expectation-defying events. We presented preschoolers and elementary schoolers with a variety of unexpected events.

Some violated moral rules, like stealing candy; some violated social conventions, like wearing pajamas to school; and some violated physical laws, like floating in the air. For all types of violations, we asked children whether the event could happen in the real world or was impossible and whether the event was okay or was wrong.

We found that older children, like adults, differentiated both the questions and the violations. When asked about possibility, they claimed that a person could not violate physical laws but could violate moral rules or social conventions. When asked about permissibility, they claimed it would be wrong to violate moral rules but not wrong (or as wrong) to violate social conventions or physical laws. Preschoolers, on the other hand, claimed it was both impossible and impermissible to commit any of these violations. They claimed that floating in the air is not just impossible but also wrong and that stealing candy is not just wrong but also impossible. Even minor violations, like wearing pajamas to school, were judged equally harshly; preschoolers claimed they neither could happen nor should happen.

Adults recognize that unconventional or immoral actions are possible, but we too conflate these distinctions when making snap judgments. Imagine, for example, that a friend is on the way to the airport when his car breaks down. How might he get to the airport in time to catch his flight? Could he hail a taxi? Could he teleport himself directly to the airport? Could he sneak onto public transportation? You probably agree that he could hail a taxi and disagree that he could teleport himself, but what about the third option, which involves deception and swindling? Given time to reflect, most people concede that this option is possible, but under time pressure, we make the opposite judgment, claiming that sneaking onto public transportation is impossible. We have to reflect on deviant behavior to recognize that it is, in fact, possible.

Shouldn’t and couldn’t are thus bound together in how we reason about possibility. It takes learning and reflection to differentiate the two. Consider your own reaction to hearing that the U.S. Capitol was invaded in early January. Chances are, the first question you asked yourself was not “Why did this happen?” but “How could this happen?”—a question about possibility. We know, reflectively, that moral rules can be broken, but we don’t expect them to be broken, and when they are, we fixate on the possibility of the transgression before pondering the transgressors’ motives and means. Deviant behavior is often just not within the scope of ordinary imagination. We instinctively expect our neighbors and compatriots to behave better.