Research highlight

Human behaviour: Why enforcement of social norms fails

Nature Communications

November 2, 2016

People do not respond differently to large and small social norm violations, such as different extents of littering, shows a study published in Nature Communications this week. The belief that larger violations should be punished more severely than smaller offences was cancelled out by increasing fear of retribution by the violator, the study suggests.

Loukas Balafoutas and colleagues staged small violations (littering a coffee cup) and large violations (littering a coffee cup and bag of trash) at train stations in Germany and recorded how travellers responded in more than 800 trials. In these trials, the size of the violation did not affect the likelihood that the litterer would be reprimanded or the intensity of the reprimand.

In contrast to the observed behaviour of travellers, separate surveys at the same locations revealed that respondents had more negative emotions towards the larger violation and felt that it should be reprimanded more severely. Despite these responses, surveyed individuals admitted that they would be reluctant to punish such violations in real-life settings because the perceived risk of retaliation by the norm violator increased with the severity of the social norm violation.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms13327

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