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Compliance with Social Norms

My Take

Compliance with social norms has both a bright side and a dark side. On the positive, having some basic behaviors that people follow to get along with colleagues and neighbors helps teams perform more fluidly. It keeps society organized and helps us enforce the rule of law. It keeps meetings orderly. It pressures students to pay attention in class.

There are costs as well. If everyone is behaving the same, we don’t have as many opportunities to be individualistic. We may lose some creativity. We may diminish innovation. Anything that requires people to be different can be muted.

So how do we know when to promote compliance and when to promote non-compliance? I am not talking about defiance and outright rebellion, just maybe some moderate nonconformity. As individuals, are we well calibrated to know when to conform and when to stray? In our work teams, do we know how to balance the two poles? As a society, are we creating a culture that has a happy mix? The proverbial middle path?

What if we could adjust the balance on the fly? What if we could identify a condition where there is too much non-compliance and quickly add some in? That may be overgeneralizing the finding, but it is the essence of some research by Christian Ruff at the University of Zurich. There is a good summary of the work at Scientific American.

He starts off by speculating on why evolution would have selected for social norm compliance as a heritable trait. When your survival depends on getting along with the tribe (and not being banished from the campfire to die at the mercy of the elements and predators), it certainly has a compelling ring to it. He suggests that this would lead to a common neural mechanism that is specialized for it.

While we constantly warn each other that the connection between neuroscience and specific behaviors has to be taken with a grain of speculation, Dr. Ruff’s research is very well controlled and is somewhat persuasive. He stimulated the right lateral prefrontal cortex (rLPFC) using scalp electrodes. This area has been shown to increase when participants are complying with social norms. The strongest findings come from research with teenagers who generally have much less sensitivity to risk and punishment. They also find a strong effect with patients who have problems with behavioral control.

Of course, correlation is not causation so Ruff’s study takes it a step further and introduces experimental control.

They created a social game similar to the dictator game. When there was no possibility that an unknown randomly assigned, single trial partner could retaliate, participants only shared about 10-25% of the pot, much less than the 50% that would be considered purely “fair”. But when the partner could punish this unfairness, sharing went up to the 40-50% you would expect. Apparently, we are motivated by fairness when there are consequences, but not as much when there are none.

Then they tested what happened when either a positive or negative charge was used to stimulate the rLPFC. Sure enough, a positive charge increased the amount shared by 33%. But only for trials when there was a chance for punishment. A negative charge decreased the amount shared by 23% and again only for trials where there was a chance for punishment. Because they tested both directions, they make a good case for causation.

Note that the effect was not to make participants altruistic. It simply made them more sensitive to the potential for punishment. This is similar to what we saw in last week’s episode in our neuroscience series with risk perception.

Yet again, it was more effective at bringing participants with insufficient sensitivity to punishment up to the population average. It was less effective at bringing someone from a typical level up to some higher level of sensitivity.

Your Turn

So I ask you . . . What if each time you warn your teenage child that she will be punished for breaking curfew you could zap her rLPFC to increase compliance? Or that recalcitrant employee who never wears her safety goggles? Or the patient who refuses to take his medicine?

Would you be in favor of giving this a try? It is just scalp electrodes, so it would be relatively easy to implement and at a low cost.

Image Credit: Marina del Castell

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