Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.14.2010

Thinking About Library Fines

I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. I’m sure I’ll write a more comprehensive review once I’ve finished since I’m finding it very insightful and enlightening, but for now I just want to share the chapter I just finished: “The Cost of Social Norms: Why We Are Happy to Do Things, but Not When We Are Paid to Do Them.” If you know it, think of the fence painting incident in Tom Sawyer when Tom gets all his friends to paint his fence for him by convincing them they’re missing out on fun. Earlier in the chapter Ariely shares numerous experiments he’s conducted to test the point. One quick example: People were motivated to work fairly hard on a meaningless task when either asked to do so as a favor or paid a fair amount, but did poor work when paid poorly. Further, when offered a “Snickers bar” as a gift of appreciation they still felt it was a favor and worked hard; when offered a “50-cent Snickers bar” as a gift of appreciation they felt it was a market exchange, and a poor one, and did shoddy work. Just the subtle mention of monetary value affected everything. Now, on to the section that has me thinking about library fines:

So we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships. Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges, as we have seen, violates the social norms and hurts the relationships. Once this type of mistake has been committed, recovering a social relationship is difficult. Once you’ve offered to pay for the delightful Thanksgiving dinner, your mother-in-law will remember the incident for years to come. And if you’ve ever offered a potential romantic partner the chance to cut to the chase, split the cost of the courting process, and simply go to bed, the odds are that you will have wrecked the romance forever.

My good friends . . . provided a very clever test of the long-term effects of a switch from social to market norms.

A few years ago, they studied a day care center in Israel to determine whether imposing a fine on parents who arrived late to pick up their children was a useful deterrent. Uri and Aldo concluded that the fine didn’t work well, and in fact it had long-term negative effects. Why? Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late—as they occasionally were—they felt guilty about it—and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future. (In Israel, guilt seems to be an effective way to get compliance.) But once the fine was imposed, the day care center had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were
paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late. Needless to say, this was not what the day care center intended.

But the real story only started here. The most interesting part occurred a few weeks later, when the day care center removed the fine. Now the center was back to the social norm. Would the parents also return to the social norm? Would their guilt return as well? Not at all. Once the fine was removed, the behavior of the parents didn’t change. They continued to pick up their kids late. In fact, when the fine was removed, there was a slight increase in the number of tardy pickups (after all, both the social norms and the fine had been removed).

This experiment illustrates an unfortunate fact: when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish. Once the bloom is off the rose—once a social norm is trumped by a market norm—it will rarely return.

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