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Confronting Bad Behavior: Is There A Social Payoff?

October 18, 2009
Washington State University
Suppose you are at a busy playground and you hear an 11-year-old using language he didn't learn on Sesame Street. There are plenty of other adults around, but, apparently, not this child's parents. Do you intervene? Does anyone?

Suppose you are at a busy playground and you hear an 11-year-old using language he didn’t learn on Sesame Street. There are plenty of other adults around, but, apparently, not this child’s parents. Do you intervene? Does anyone?

WSU sociologist Christine Horne is pretty sure the answer is, “It depends.” Many factors might go into your decision, but the key variable isn’t how offensive the language is, it’s who else is around.

“We don’t just punish in response to a bad behavior,” Horne says. “We punish because we care what people think of us.”

In The Rewards of Punishment: A Relational Theory of Norm Enforcement, Horne develops her theory that people sanction because they want to look good to others. Further, her research indicates that the more cohesive or interdependent the group, the more likely people are to sanction bad behavior.

So, in the playground scenario, Horne’s theory suggests that if you are at the park by yourself or with a rough group of characters with similar vocabularies, you might not get involved. But, if you are at the park with a group of like-minded friends, you are much more likely to take a stand. It’s not just that your friends will back you up, but also that they will think well of you and the social ties between you will be strengthened.

Horne’s book, published this year by Stanford University Press, follows on the heels of two previous books in which she was a co-editor. “Experiments in Criminology and Law: A Research Revolution,” was published in 2008, and “Theories of Social Order: A Reader,” first published 2003 came out in a second edition this year.

In her most recent book, Horne discusses her theory of norms enforcement with multiple real world examples, presents data from laboratory experiments that test the theory, and then explores the implications for developing effective public policy.

Horne says she was curious about why people engage in seemingly inconsistent or self-defeating behavior – behavior that existing theories seemed unable to explain. Why did the Chinese enforce the cultural norm of foot binding for centuries, even though it produced no tangible benefits and much pain and anguish? Why did Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet sign the 1988 International Convention Against Torture, the very agreement that allowed him to be arrested and prosecuted a decade later? Even more dramatic, why would the Norse in Greenland in the 1400s perish as a civilization rather than break a cultural norm against eating certain kinds of seafood?

According to her theory, people will act in ways that damage their personal interests if it means their ties to a particular social group will be strengthened. And, she suggests, one of the best ways to strengthen your ties to a particular group is to help enforce the norms of that group by punishing outliers.

Significantly, Horne created a series of laboratory experiments to test her theory, a notoriously difficult thing for a sociologist to do. Essentially, she developed computer “games” that require participants to punish or reward each other for actions that either help or harm the individual or the group.

In the experiments, Horne manipulated the “cost” of punishing other people, the “reward” for punishing, and the interdependence of the group. When the social rewards were high, people were likely to punish.

In addition to presenting the experimental evidence, Horne uses her theory to explore issues as diverse as the enforcement of fidelity, political correctness, Amish rejection of Social Security, and education policy.

Brent Simpson, associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, praised Horne’s work on norms enforcement. “Sociologists and other social scientists have long considered (norms enforcement) extremely important,” he said, “but have struggled to address it a coherent, systematic way.”

Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist at the London School of Economics (and author of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters) called Horne’s ideas “insightful and original.”

“I think this book will fill an important gap in the current scholarship in the field,” he said. “It will be the first book to "sell" the scientific method of laboratory experiments in social sciences both to skeptical social scientists (who are the majority of social scientists) and to intelligent lay readers interested in norms and behavior.”

According to Kanazawa, “Horne's defense of the experimental method are simultaneously accurate, thorough, and accessible to nonspecialists. Her defense is not the first word on the matter, but it should be the last word.”

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