8 October 2012

Praising Normality

Normality is a relative term which can mean a lot of things such as: what is the behavior of a majority of people; something that has a rational explanation or simply something that is in accordance with social norms and in the end what people believe it is normal.

At the same time, what the majority of people do does not necessarily equal normality. If a majority of people behave in a certain way it does not mean that it is the right way. For example if a majority of people use public transport without paying a ticket it is not normal. Similarly a behavior that is rationally explainable is not necessarily normal. For example it is rational for people to drive as fast as possible to save time, but going with 100 km/hour in a city is not exactly normal. For the sake of the argument let’s say that normality is something that balances the individual and communal interests. For example it is normal for an individual to want to get as fast as possible from point A to point B and at the same time it is normal to have road safety. So in this case normality would be driving with maximum 50 km/hour in a city.

Going a bit back, what if normality is not the most common behavior? What if normality is driving with 50 km/hour but the general behavior is driving with 80 km/hour? Is that a case where normality should be praised? Or would it be simpler to severely punish the abnormal majoritarian behavior (e.g. give huge fines)? More so, what if the normal behavior is majoritarian, should normality be praised?   

These are really tricky questions. After all if people behave as they should why should we care? If something normal is happening, isn’t it simply normal to be that way? Most common knowledge and general social philosophy is centered on punishing “abnormal” behavior with the goal (hope) that people that have been punished and people who see others get punished would stick to the “Normal” behavior.

I believe that this way of thinking is flawed. I believe that normality should be praised (or at least congratulated). Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against punishing abnormal behavior, but I know this way of guiding behavior through fear of punishment has its limits and believe me it is highly limited. I will not detail here the limits of the “principal – agent model” on which punishment is based since it would take a lot of time. What is important is that ONLY punishment will not have the desired results.

Let’s go back to praising normality. As you might know I come from a country where “normality” (in the sense of balancing self and group interests) is quite rare. Not to say that everything is abnormal in the country of origin, but there is A LOT to be improved. Not till long ago, I believed that normality should be simply acknowledged and abnormality should be severely criticized (or punished). However, living for more than 2 years in a society where normality is much more often encountered, I’ve realized that praising normality is a good idea.

If you remember, earlier I’ve asked if normality should be praised when the majoritarian behavior is the abnormal one. In more simple words: should normality be praised in my country of origin (where normality is quite rare)? The answer is YES! And I’ll explain why. But, what if the majoritarian behavior is the normal one, should normality be praised in this case too? The answer is again YES and I’ll explain why. However, in the latter case, maybe “Praised” is not the exact word, rather it should be rewarded with positive feed-back.

The essence of this post is “Positive Feed-Back” and this might come in the form of Praising or simply in the form of “Well-done!”. For better understanding of the argument, I’ll use the term “Positive Feed-Back” from now on.

Let’s take the first case where “Normal” Behavior is not the majoritarian behavior. Why do you think this could be?

One reason would be that people are simply unaware of what “normal” is. In more simple words: people don’t know how they should behave normally. Take the example of simply not knowing what the speed limit is in a certain area. If you’ve never encountered such a situation start driving in other countries outside the main roads. Similarly, when in a new situation, one might not know how to behave appropriately. One way of tackling this issue is to say what the norm is. Another one (not excluding the first one) is to give positive feed-back when the appropriate (normal) behavior occurs.

This positive feed-back when the appropriate behavior occurs is very similar to “vicarious learning”. This type of learning is very similar to the idea of “stumbling on the right behavior”. When not knowing what the right behavior is, one would simply behave “randomly” or does what others do. But if a positive feed-back comes when the “right” behavior occurs, one would learn what the right behavior is. On the other hand if only the “wrong” behavior is punished the person would simply learn what is “not right”, but not learn “what is right”.

Another reason why the “Normal” behavior is not the majoritarian behavior might simply be that the “social norm” is to exhibit another behavior than the “normal” one. In this case positive feed-back has the role of (attempting) to shift the “social norm”. If (some) people would find out that the “normal” behavior is different from “what the majority does” they are likely to change their behavior towards the “normal” one. If many enough people do this, then the appropriate behavior will become majoritarian and “doing what others do” will act in the favor of the normal behavior. In other words, if enough people would start behaving appropriately, then the social norm will become the appropriate behavior and thus, “following the herd” will act as an enforcer of the “normal” behavior.

In the case of the majoritarian behavior not being the “normal” one, (simply) punishing the abnormal behavior will be highly ineffective. People would be puzzled since they see that what they believed to be “normal” – namely what others do is punished. Moreover, not the entire majority exhibiting the abnormal behavior will be punished (due to physical limitations – e.g. the police can’t fine each and every driver that goes over the speed limit). This will lead to frustration on the part of the people being punished and it is rightfully so. In the end, others have the exact same behavior and they don’t get punished, or others have a more pronounced behavior and they don’t get punished. For example one might think that “other people drive with 100 km/hour in a city and they don’t get punished and I drove with only 80km/hour and I got a fine. This is unfair!”

Another issue in the case of “Normal” behavior not being the majoritarian behavior is the source of information used to learn or infer what the “social norm” is. One obvious source of information is what one sees around. If on a road a driver sees that all other drivers go over the speed limit, then this is the “social norm”. However, this is not the only source of information one has and there are many more other sources, but one stands out – mass media. If the media gives examples of people exhibiting the “abnormal” behavior, one can infer that this is the “social norm” (observation bias). Moreover, if the people exhibiting the “Abnormal” behavior get media attention, then this might be the way for others to get media attention. The need for status is a very powerful one and some people might believe that in order to get noticed (e.g. appear on TV or get his or her name in the papers) one should exhibit some sort of “severe case of abnormal behavior”.

This implies that mass media materials that are meant to publicly criticize and / or bring shame on the people that don’t obey the rules could have a very perverse effect. Even good intentions of publicly criticizing people who do “wrong” things can have the opposite effect for certain audiences. Imagine that for a young driver who has lot of money and a “muscle” car getting his face on TV news with the mention that he drove with 250km/hour (way above speed limits) is in fact an accomplishment. Now people (especially his social reference group) will acknowledge that “he is great” or “he is The MAN”.

In brief, if in order to get noticed one has to exhibit a severe abnormal behavior, then the “right” thing to do is to cut this media attention. Of course, this would be a form of censorship which in democratic countries is not used (or at least not overtly). At the same time there can be some sorts of “gentlemen’s agreement” that the media should not publicize such abnormal behavior.

At the same time, if media attention is given to the “normal” behavior (or to “severe cases of normal behavior”) then two effects will occur. First, people will infer that this is the “social norm” and conform to it, thus leading to exhibiting normal behavior. Second, people will see that in order to get noticed they have to exhibit “severe cases of normal behavior”.

Now, let’s go to the situation when the “normal” behavior is majoritarian. Should positive feed-back be used in this situation? As I said earlier, the answer is YES and here is why.

In this fortunate case where normality is normal, complying with the social norm is working in favor of the “normal” behavior. This means that there is already a mass of people that behave “normally” thus, anyone who would need to infer what the “rule” is would see that the majority of people behave in the “normal” way and mimic their behavior, thus behaving “normally” themselves. However, social norms can change and sometimes there what is needed for a social norm to change is just a hand-full of very salient disobeyers. 

Let’s take again the example of speeding. If on a road every driver obeys the speed limit (let’s say 90 km/hour) and there are 10 drivers going with 150 km/hour that are passing the drivers obeying the speed limit. Then for sure some of the drivers that were respecting the speed limit will accelerate a bit… maybe not to 150, but at least to 100 – 110 km/hour. Then other drivers will do the same and suddenly the ones that are obeying the 90 km/hour speed limit will be a rather small minority.

This is why positive feed-back is more than welcomed even when the social norm is to exhibit the “normal” behavior. Positive feed-back enforces the social norm.

The question that arises is “what is positive feed-back?”. Positive feed-back is again a very wide concept. It can take the form of a smiley face displayed on the radar in front of a school when one is driving below 50km/hour (it works wonders). It can also take the form of a “Good Job!” or “Nicely done!” coming from a supervisor of from a friend. It can also take the form of “a pleasant sound” when doing something right with a machine (such as checking in the tram in Rotterdam) etc. Positive feed-back can take many forms and a hint for those of you who are trying to figure out what to use is: try to generate positive emotions and not give just “information” (e.g. numbers).

I’ve given examples with regard to driving and speeding, but these are not the only areas where positive feed-back can work wonders. In the book “Nudge” by Thaler and Sustein, there is an example about “1 dollar per day for not getting pregnant”. I know that it sounds a bit weird, but when getting pregnant at the age of 15 when living in a poor environment, 1 dollar per day might be a good motivator.

In the end I’d like to make some final remarks on negative and positive feed-back. Much of what (western) society is about is to keep people behaving appropriately and condemning the violation of norms. Fear is a very important and powerful emotion that can have enormous effects in motivation to adopt or not a certain behavior. At the same time, Fear is not as effective as we might think if there is only a chance (and not certainty) of getting caught. Moreover, do we actually want to live in a society driven by fear?

Many attempts to guide behavior toward the “appropriate” one are biased by this “fear motivation”. As you may know my home country has issues with corruption and there are campaigns that promote not bribing public servants. However, no-one promotes being fair. No one promotes those people who do their job without bribery. Similarly most anti-drug and anti-smoking campaigns focus on the negative side of things. At the same time no-one focuses on the advantages of not taking drugs and not smoking.

Sometimes saying and punishing what’s “wrong” does not necessarily indicate what is “RIGHT”.

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