Social Norms

I went for a jog last Monday evening, after dark. In my neighborhood, the acceptable practice is to put trash and recycling bins out the morning of trash pickup. It’s somewhat taboo to get this task out-of-the-way the night before, with a few exceptions.

When it gets hot, the trucks run early to avoid the heat. Better get your trash out the night before or risk missing the pickup. Normal pickup is mid morning to late afternoon.

Our pickup day is Tuesday, so weeks with Monday holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day are always fun. Nobody knows for sure to wait until Wednesday, so some put them out Tuesday morning and let them sit for a day. Count on it being windy enough on these days to blow a couple lids to the recycling bins open and scatter loose newspapers and past homework assignments across the neighborhood.

I noticed while jogging at about 9 pm, I was running down a street about a half mile from the house and almost all bins were already out to the curb. I was thinking to myself, what kind of neighborhood is this, anyway? With breakdowns in social order this close to my home, I might need to think about moving soon. Is this a precursor to rising crime? I’ve noticed more hipsters around. They probably think this is cool.

On the way to work the next morning, early, I passed the same street and glanced over to shake my head in disgust at this haven for thugs.


I also noticed the trash truck making its way down the street. I realized it was my trash day too. While my neighbors and I are accustomed to the later pickup, these folks must be near the first on our same trash route for the day.

Social order restored! These folks weren’t bucking the norm. They just had a different norm that was shaped by their order on the route. They didn’t want to risk missing their alarm and be left with stinky trash sitting around for another week. That’s why they put their bins to the curb the night before. They’re still responsible homeowners after all.

Why do you stop at red lights?

I recently asked a co-worker this question when we were talking about law.  It went something like:

Me:  Why do you stop at red lights?

Her:  Because it’s the law.

Me:  You mean the law as in the rules on the books?

Her:  Of course.

Me:  Do you drive the speed limit?

Her:  Well close to it.

Me: But over it, right?

Her:  Well, yeah, doesn’t everybody?

Me:  Okay. Are you still sure that you stop at red lights because it’s a rule that’s written down?  You just admitted that you don’t follow another written down rule.

Her:  Not really.  So, why do I stop at red lights?

Me:  I’m going to give you a choice.  I can give you the answer and the way you look at the world may change.  Or, I will not give you the answer and you can go on believing the world around you behaves in a way that it does not.

Her:  Okay, quit the Matrix b.s. and tell me for crying out loud.

Me:  Well.  There’s a couple reasons you stop at a red light.  One is your own safety.  You know that you don’t stop at green lights.  And you know that nobody else does either.  So, if you ran red lights, the direct consequences could be great and you could do you and others serious harm.  The main reason you stop at red lights is because it pays off well for you to do so.

Her:  Okay.

Me:  Another reason is that at some point in time, the color red became associated with stopping in traffic.  No central body sat around and said red lights will be the standard for that.  It emerged somewhere as a practice and stuck.  As far as I know, most traffic laws are passed by city and state governments.  Yet, somehow, without a centralized standards committee on traffic signaling, red emerged as the signal for stopping and green for go.  And it’s just not in the U.S.  It’s pretty much everywhere there’s traffic — other countries, railroads, airport runways, boats and so forth.  So, that’s why you stop at the color red.  (This website claims that the traffic signal was adapted from the railroad by an innovative officer in Michigan).

Her: Okay.  So what’s your point?

Me:  My point is that you, like most people, think you stop at red lights because “it’s the law”.  It is in a sense, but not the sense you are thinking.  You are thinking of legislation, or the law that some governing body has written down on paper.

However, if we investigated all legislation, we’d probably find many “laws” that we break.

You stop at red lights because “it’s the law” in the sense that it’s an evolved social norm.  This norm evolved to help keep us safe.  And it works.  Do you know how I know it works?

Her: I bet you’re going to tell me.

Me: Because we still practice it and it more or less keeps hundreds of millions, if not billions of people safe.  I’m guessing if we looked into history, we might find that there were other things tried, but they didn’t work as effectively.

Roundabouts and cloverleafs, for example, also seem to be effective ways to handle intersections in traffic, the real estate and additional construction cost probably doesn’t make them as cost effective as traffic signals.

Laws are really developed in the crucibles of human interactions and emerge as social norms, customs and practices.

They rarely emerge from legislators or judges, even though most people think that’s exactly where they come from.

Her:  Gee.

This conversation was inspired by this lecture from Don Boudreaux:

The video is worth your time.  If you don’t have that kind of time to sit at the computer, then you can also download an EconTalk podcast from 2006 that’s essentially the same material.

Listen to it if you want to escape the Matrix.

What’s worse than a zombie apocalypse?

The CDC grabbed headlines recently for suggesting that we prepare for an imminent zombie apocalypse.  The self-admitted tongue-in-cheek campaign was meant to bring attention to their very real recommendations to have emergency supplies on hand, be prepared with emergency evacuation routes and such.  Nice PR idea.

It made me think about something that’s nearly as scary — a social norm apocalypse.  What would happen if a lot of people stopped living by the social norms that have emerged and evolved to help guide our behavior and give us a sense of right and wrong?

It could get ugly.  Some reasonable depictions of this exists in the countless zombie genre movies.  Many of those shows end up being more about how the few remaining humans get along with each other when the game has changed.

Isolated incidents of crime are social norm failures that could turn into outbreaks.  Thankfully, our social norms usually kick in to minimize the spread.   Certainly, we grant authority to law enforcement to maintain social order when all else breaks down, but we often play a key role ourselves by following generally accepted behavior, teaching our kids to do the same and reinforcing good behavior with something as simple as a smile.

It makes me feel better when groups of private citizens organize after a crime wave to call for end to it.  Just as a smile can positively reinforce good behavior, shame can minimize bad behavior.  If you haven’t altered your behavior in response to shame, then you could be a sociopath.

Major social norm failure outbreaks have occurred numerous times in recorded and unrecorded history.   Give it some thought and you can probably think of a few.

It’s interesting and educational to think about what happened in those times and places that caused social norms to breakdown with such widespread and disastrous results.

In many cases, you will find that power had concentrated into a single point of failure and it took enough authority to override the social norms.

That characteristic is present even in isolated crime incidents.  Murder is nothing more than the murderer taking absolute authority over another life and choosing to override the social norm against murder.  Likewise for stealing.

At least in a zombie apocalypse, most of us wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with the ensuing breakdowns in social order.