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The titanic effects of social norms

Zulfikar Hyder |

In an attempt to discourage a certain behaviour through the incorporation of social norms into the policy structure, policy-makers often, without malicious intent, and as an epitaph to their clamorous failure, reinforce the very behaviour they set out to discourage or eliminate.

For example, a state-run or private campaign to discourage smoking amplifes the number of smokers rather than magnifying the number of non-smokers. The campaigns focus more on the gruesome deaths that smokers die rather than the beautiful lives that non-smokers live.

Similarly, a campaign to discourage corruption often conveys the information that most people are corrupt. A plethora of such examples can be drawn upon close observation of state-run anti-smoking, anti-corruption or anti-fraud campaigns.

It is true that the campaigns shame these acts but it also establishes the idea that most people smoke, most people are corrupt, and often people engage in fraudulent acts. As such, these campaigns enact a new social norm—the norm of the wrong.

While the function of the campaign is to magnify the abnormality or the anti-social characteristics of such acts, in the end it normalises the very acts that digress from the commonly recognised or historically established civic or social norms.

As humans, we suffer from a semblance or availability bias. We validate our corrupt acts with a simple statement – “I am not alone.”

Imagine you are invited for lunch to a relative’s or a friend’s place. The carpet on the floor looks plush and you are about to open your shoes before you step on it and suddenly, almost intuitively, you decide not to.

Chances are that your decision to step on the luxurious Iranian carpet with your dirty shoes was encouraged not by your own volition but by the fact that other guests at the brunch party were all treading the soft carpet with their shoes that appear equally dirty, if not dirtier than your own.

Though contextually the example might seem petty, it is, however, common. The purpose of policy should be to address common behavioural patterns rather than obnoxiously bad or prodigally good behaviours.

To further illustrate the notion, I would urge you to gaze upon another commonly witnessed scenario.

If you have ever been to hospitals to visit a relative who had a major operation or if you had to undergo such a procedure yourself, you must be well aware of the long queue that our relatives or attendants form outside the operation theatre making it diffcult for doctors, nurses and medical supplies to pass through.

You cannot help but notice the symphonic wailing of the relatives while bidding goodbye to the patient who is just about to be operated on.

You cannot be oblivious to the fact that in this clamour, in the symphony that sounds like nothing more than a rhapsody of imminent death to a person still willing to live, the patient is losing his or her hopes of coming back alive from the operation theatre.

Such expressions of emotion or love often cause more harm than good to our near and dear ones. Yet, we do it. We cry. We wail. We tell them we love them, and without malicious intent we almost kill them.

Though it is common knowledge that attendants should not create any unnecessary commotion outside the operation theatre and should not engage in unnecessary conversations with the patient right before he or she is to be operated on and should be encouraged and given hope of life, we often do the opposite. Attempts of the hospital staff to break the commotion can, under extreme circumstances, topple the emotions of sadness to utter violence.

Often the hospital staff retire upon hanging a sign on the wall that requests, begs and insists the attendants to maintain silence.

The effectiveness of such signs or the instructions of the hospital staff to maintain a solemn environment depends not on the size of the font or the colour of the print in which the sign is printed and neither does it depend on the loudness of the instruction or the humbleness of the requests made by the hospital staff—but rather on the norm that exists in the particular premise.

In an environment where most people are silent and are maintaining a low voice while talking only when absolutely necessary, any new entrant would do the same.

Without much administrative expense or effort, the hospital can establish a “Silence Please” condition through the magnification of the idea that most people stay quiet. Instead of “Silence please” or “Please keep quiet,” the sign outside the operation theatre should rather read “We usually stay quiet.”

Instead of the staff urging, “Please do not talk,” they should be trained to say, “People are not loud here.” Often we don’t want to be the one to break the silence or, in other words, “change the norm.”

Similar nudges to establish desired social norms can be used in reducing corruption in our government offices where the appetite for corruption is often deemed to be voracious.

Establishment of anti-corruption commission conveys the idea that government institutes are corrupt and need to be straightened out. It also involves the allocation of government funds to churn another layer of administrative butter within the already heavy administrative bowl.

Alternative approaches such as asking every employee to sign a declaration that reads “I am not corrupt” right at the point of entry every morning will certainly prime the individual towards attaining an honest attitude.

Similarly, rather than hanging the picture of our Father of the Nation or our prime minister overhead, it should be placed in a position from where it might seem that the premiers are looking straight at the government official sitting at his desk and the official looking at them. Meeting the eye will certainly make it difficult for the official to steal.

I am not proposing that such approaches will eradicate corruption entirely, but rather suggesting that it might help us to be more honest in our day-to-day activities.

In our media, in investigative journalism or media sting operations, we should magnify the honesty of our government officials rather than amplifying the corruption that some engage in. Portrayal of a norm of honesty in mass media will breed a new belief.

It will help people to accept the idea that government officials are honest and this can further assist in filtering the few who breach the honesty code. Not only does such an approach change the norm of bad into a norm of good, it also saves millions in tax payers’ money.

Negating the effect of others on our own behaviour and designing policies with the faith that people are “Econs” and not “Humans” will certainly cause the Titanic to sink.

Maybe it is the reason that valiant efforts to discourage smoking or reducing corruption fail so miserably. Instead of making ‘Titanic’ policies, it is time we shed light on the titanic effects that social norms have on our own behaviour and tailor policies that adequately harness this natural force to steer towards the better.

The Daily Star/ANN.