Why do we break the rules?

I don’t write much about classroom behaviour, or rather, I don’t write explicitly about classroom behaviour. In fact, this post is more about behaviour in general, with some comments on behaviour in schools, so please don’t assume that I’m setting myself up as a behaviour guru (there are plenty of those already).

In fact, I’m more interested in why people break rules than thinking up ways to make them obey them. This might seem like a topsy-turvy way to approach it, but then, I’m a psychologist and my brain has an annoying habit of working in a topsy-turvy and often chaotic way (as anyone who’s met me or seen me present at a teaching event will know).

On the surface, controlling people’s behaviour seems fairly simple: produce a set of guidelines for acceptable behaviour, punish those who break the rules and (in some cases) reward those who follow them. The punishments (let’s call them sanctions because it sounds more pleasant) will prevent people from breaking the rules, so, if we execute people for committing murder, nobody will murder, right? Okay, that was perhaps a slightly extreme and somewhat silly example, but hopefully, you get my point.

And the point is that some people will still break the rules despite the sanctions – this is the bit that interests me. We know that driving 35mph on a 30mph zone to against the rules, but we still do it.

We can relate such behaviour to society as a whole or micro-environments such as schools or individual classrooms, but ultimately the end results are the same – most, if not all, of us break the rules.

We can explain such behaviour in simple classical behaviourist terms. If every time you speak, I hit you with a big stick you will either a) stop speaking or b) develop a very nasty tick every time you speak (in anticipation of being hit with a big stick). Please bear in mind that this in no way implies that I believe in controlling behaviour by hitting people with big sticks – I just want to make that point perfectly clear.

We could take a more operant approach. Offering rewards for good behaviour and sanctions for bad might work better. Indeed, research has found that rewarding good behaviour can, in some cases, be more productive than punishing bad behaviour. This is all well and good, so long as rewards are used strategically and not offered on a whim. One school I worked at used a system of Positive Discipline where pupils would get stamps in their planners for good behaviour (many schools operate a similar system). If, by the end of the year, pupils had accumulated enough stamps, they could could go on a trip to local theme park. However, management decreed that stamps should be awarded for simply turning up to lessons, thus undermining the whole concept.

Behaviourist approaches remain popular as a means of getting people to do what we want them to, even though they have been largely replaced by or amalgamated within more recent socio-cognitive models – less stimulus-response and more information processing, sometimes with a healthy dollop of behavioural economics.

This means that there are more sophisticated approaches to human behaviour that limit the utility of behaviourist approaches. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that we learn by observing how others are rewarded or punished; Robert Cialdini suggests that we take cues from others, so if we are unsure of the correct behaviour, we look around and see what others are doing first (so-called Social Proof Theory). This is most apparent in the case of pluralistic ignorance, where, faced with a potential emergency, we first take our cue from those around us. Do they think it’s an emergency? If not, we won’t do anything to help (like phone the fire brigade).

This is why praising children for the good behaviour might have a positive impact on behaviour in general – if they witness others receiving praise for their behaviour, this may well be enough to encourage others to follow the example. Behaviour, then, becomes a social enterprise rather than an individual choice.

Indeed, Cialdini believes others play a major role in shaping a person’s behaviour through a number of concepts including reciprocity, consistency, liking and authority.

Obedience to authority has been tested consistently since Milgram’s early and now infamous work. What we often fail to realise, however, is that obedience has also been found to be both culturally and historically influenced (Milgram’s original findings were most likely influenced by the Communist witch hunts that the US was still recovering from at the time). Also, rates of obedience fell when the experiment was transferred from the hallowed halls of Yale University to an old office block downtown – so the environment plays a role.

What is interesting about the Milgram experiments (to me anyway) are the reasons why some people disobeyed the instructions of the authority figure while the majority continued to carry out an act they found morally repugnant.

The most plausible explanation is a psychological concept known as reactance, first proposed by Jack Brehm in his 1966 book A theory of psychological reactance. Reactance theory suggests that when we feel that our freedoms are in some way being infringed upon, we react with hostility – telling people not to do something compels them to do it. This might go some way to explaining why authoritarian practices are ultimately unsustainable. For example, studies have linked rigid, authoritarian parenting styles to everything from depression and obesity to drug addiction and academic underachievement. Authoritarian political regimes rarely last because, ultimately, the people grow angry at having their freedom curtailed.

When people are given choices (or, at least, the illusion of choice) they feel more in control of their actions. Of course, our choices will always be limited by societal norms, pressures and rules. We can see this at a micro-level where motivation levels increase in classrooms where teachers are autonomy-supportive (a building block of Ryan and Deci’s Self-determination theory) but also in less authoritarian nations with lower crime rates and higher quality of life.

The suggestion often made that punishments or sanctions work is not entirely accurate and assumes that human beings are simple stimulus-response machines, a view that was overturned in psychology decades ago. Certainly, our behaviour can be easily manipulated by those who know how to manipulate us (you never get a good deal on a used car, no matter how much you believe the salesperson), but at least we feel that we have a choice in buying the car in the first place (see here for a quick guide on how to manipulate you audience).

Surely the answer to the behaviour problem in more multifaceted than some would have us believe. It should certainly not be guided by ideology or politics, but by a critical and balanced review of the evidence. Sanctions and rewards are useful, but also is imbuing people with a sense of autonomy and purpose, of cultivating the individual and allowing voices to be heard.

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