The Punitive Society and its Effect on Compliance

How is com­pli­an­ce learned?

We live in a puni­ti­ve world. This is to say that the most typi­cal reac­tion from the world to any­thing you do is puni­ti­ve. You do somet­hing – any­thing – and the world kicks back at you.

This is somet­hing we expe­ri­en­ce from ear­ly child­hood. You move, you get hurt. You try to climb, you fall over. You try to walk, you fall over. Any­thing you have learned is accom­pa­nied by a his­tory of more or less unp­lea­sant reac­tions from the world.

This also goes for socie­ty as a whole. You do somet­hing that is not approved by socie­ty, and socie­ty acts like the rest of the world: somet­hing you don’t like to hap­pen, hap­pens. You are thrown in pri­son, fined, or just in gene­ral frow­ned upon. Hard­ly does the world offer to tell you what you should have done inste­ad or, often more impor­tant, how you should go about to be able to do what you should have done inste­ad.

As it hap­pens, how­e­ver, beha­vior is typi­cal­ly most effi­ci­ent­ly changed when new beha­vior is imme­dia­te­ly follow­ed by a plea­sant respon­se. The­re are qua­li­fi­ca­tions to this state­ment, but, to paint with a broad brush, beha­viors that are imme­dia­te­ly follow­ed by somet­hing plea­sant are more like­ly to be repeated. So how do we learn any­thing?. Becau­se our parents have success­fully held neg­a­ti­ve con­se­quen­ces at bay, and made us a world in which obey­ing has more plea­sant con­se­quen­ces than dis­o­bey­ing. This is one of the most impor­tant issues in child rea­ring: make the world more rew­ar­ding and less puni­ti­ve.

If we are brought up in a sup­porti­ve environ­ment, and if the­re is not­hing pro­ble­ma­tic about our bio­lo­gical make­up (and most often also if the­re is), we learn to navi­ga­te more or less success­fully in a pre­do­mi­nant­ly puni­ti­ve socie­ty. For instan­ce, when we go to school, our teachers tell us what to do, and we, typi­cal­ly, obey. We obey becau­se, in the past, obey­ing has been rein­for­ced by posi­ti­ve con­se­quen­ces. Now, obey­ing instruc­tions has become, in a very true sen­se, second natu­re. We obey becau­se we have been taught to obey.

Some peop­le do not learn this. A typi­cal and sali­ent examp­le is a juve­ni­le delin­quent who has been taught by his environ­ment that any­thing he does, whether good or bad, is punis­hed. When such indi­vi­du­al are taken care of by child cor­rec­tio­nal insti­tu­tions (such as our dome­stic Barne­ver­net, they need to learn that being good pays. To me (and most like­ly to you!) this is obvious, but this is not know­led­ge we are born with. This know­led­ge has been impar­ted to us by our loving and caring parents. Lear­ning this as an ado­le­scent is trouble­so­me work, which is why arran­ged rew­ards must be power­ful. Vaca­tion trips to holi­day resorts is typi­cal for real­ly chal­len­ging cases. Tab­lo­id new­spa­pers tend do go bal­li­s­tic at this, asking why juve­ni­le delin­quents deser­ve such rew­ards, to which the more cyni­cal of us reply that the return of an invest­ment that turns a futu­re soci­al security reci­pi­ent into a futu­re tax­pay­er is excep­tio­nal and can in fact jus­ti­fy a lot of such trips. The tab­lo­id jour­na­list, having for­got­ten – as has the majority of us – how hard that was to learn, does not do this cal­cu­la­tion.

A lot of our basic cha­rac­ter then, is shaped during child­hood and ado­le­scen­ce, and requi­res the con­struc­tion of an arti­fi­ci­al environ­ment, or cul­tu­re, that works con­tra­ry to the real world.

Why are we compliant?

So why are we com­pli­ant? We are com­pli­ant becau­se we have been tra­i­ned to do as we are told. We have learned that when a per­son of aut­hority says that somet­hing will hap­pen, then it will hap­pen; and we have learned that if a per­son of aut­hority says that somet­hing is like­ly to hap­pen, then it is like­ly to hap­pen. The so-cal­led Pro­tes­tant work ethic (after Max Weber, some­ti­mes joking­ly referred to as Prus­sian disci­pline) is an extre­me examp­le of a regi­me in which extre­me com­pli­an­ce is learned.

So why are we some­ti­mes not com­pli­ant? When we are not com­pli­ant, it hap­pens for two rea­sons:

  1. Becau­se we have not learned com­pli­an­ce
  2. Becau­se we have learned not to be com­pli­ant

If we assu­me nor­mal, func­tioning peop­le, case 1 abo­ve indi­ca­tes somet­hing very unusu­al about the cir­cums­tan­ces. Cle­ar­ly, an ope­ra­tion should not invol­ve ali­en forms of com­pli­an­ce. Such cases should be detected during the design sta­ge of the sys­tem.

For case 2, learned non-com­pli­an­ce usu­al­ly has to do with trade­offs. We are non-com­pli­ant becau­se being com­pli­ant invol­ves neit­her tra­i­ned nor expe­ri­en­ced bene­fits. We learn that it is pos­sib­le to get away with skip­ping rules.

So how do we induce compliance where none is?

In fact, we try not to, becau­se a sta­te of com­pli­an­ce is, in gene­ral, unwan­ted.

Com­pli­an­ce, from a beha­vioral scien­ce per­s­pec­ti­ve, is a term used to descri­be beha­viors that are car­ried out in order to avoid the con­se­quen­ces of not car­ry­ing out those beha­viors. We enga­ge in com­pli­ant beha­vior when we work in order to avoid the con­se­quen­ces of not wor­king, when we study in order to avoid the con­se­quen­ces of not study­ing, etc. We indu­ce com­pli­an­ce when we arran­ge measu­res that for­ce peop­le to do what they would other­wise not have done. The­re are bet­ter ways.

Those beha­viors that are of inte­rest to us from a com­pli­an­ce per­s­pec­ti­ve follow the following pat­tern:

Ante­ce­dent → Beha­vior → Con­se­quen­ce

whe­re the ante­ce­dent is whate­ver goes on imme­dia­te­ly before the beha­vior takes place, and the con­se­quen­ce is the result(s) of the beha­vior. The result is one of the stron­gest deter­mi­na­tors of the likeli­hood that the beha­vior will be follow­ed by the same ante­ce­dent in the futu­re, or, in other words: beha­viors are not con­trolled by their ante­ce­dents, but by their con­se­quen­ces. To make a beha­vior more like­ly, chan­ge its con­se­quen­ces.

Peop­le break rules to avoid the con­se­quen­ces of following them. This is learned: our lives are fil­led with rules and regu­la­tions, and were we to follow (or even learn!) all, we would not be able to func­tion. So we learn that rules can be bro­ken, ben­ded, or ignored wit­hout con­se­quen­ces (and con­verse­ly, those of us who make rules learn that we can throw vast amounts of rules at peop­le wit­hout their com­pla­i­ning – or at least not to us).

So the basic rules of thumb for indu­cing com­pli­an­ce to rules are

  • Don’t make more rules than abso­lute­ly neces­sa­ry
  • Do field rese­arch to veri­fy that the rules are under­stan­dab­le and accep­tab­le and impar­ted in a com­pre­hen­sib­le man­ner
  • Make sure that the cau­ses of non-com­pli­an­ce are under­sto­od so that neg­a­ti­ve con­se­quen­ces can be alte­red when pos­sib­le
  • Make sure that upp­er mana­ge­ment always show a good examp­le. Whe­ne­ver they don’t, exa­mi­ne the cau­ses for their non-com­pli­an­ce. Rules that are very dif­fi­cult to follow must be alte­red or enfor­ced.