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.