27 Jun 2013  Working Papers

Social Norms Versus Social Responsibility: Punishing Transgressions Under Conflicting Obligations

Executive Summary — Laws and regulations provide guidelines for how to punish transgressions, but ultimately, individuals make the decisions about whether and how much to punish alleged wrongdoers. Many people feel inclined to treat wrongdoers preferentially in certain contexts. For example, people may be tempted to give people a break on "special days" such as birthdays because birthdays are part of a larger class of days with social or religious significance that produce strong norms of helping, kindness, and forgiveness. This study examines what happens when those with the authority to punish find themselves in situations that encourage leniency, specifically on offenders' birthdays. Examining over 134,000 arrest records for driving under the influence (DUI offenses) in the state of Washington during a ten-year period, the researchers find that, counter to predictions, police officers are less likely to be lenient toward marginal offenders (i.e., those just under the 0.08 BAC per se threshold) on their birthdays than on any other day. Overall, the paper argues that exploring how people respond to dual pressures provides insight into how they reconcile competing motivations, whether they can correctly compensate for biases, and additional ways in which discretion may be problematic. Individuals with the responsibility to punish behave differently in the presence of a social norm to treat someone leniently than they do in the absence of that norm. However, contrary to common intuition, the resolution of this tension results in harsher treatment of offenders rather than leniency. Key concepts include:

  • Subtle contextual factors play an important role in how people make decisions about punishment.
  • Results of this paper help illuminate how discretion is exercised, furthering knowledge of how discrimination operates.
  • The paper also contributes to knowledge about how social norms affect behavior, specifically examining how individuals behave when two normative motivations collide.
  • When authority figures have discretion over punishment decisions, being confronted with a social norm of leniency causes a negative reaction, which leads them to punish transgressors more harshly.
  • Authorities with discretion over punishment should be vigilant about how they exercise that discretion in the face of norms that may motivate them toward leniency, lest they overcompensate.


Author Abstract

This paper combines experimental and field data to examine how those with discretion over punishment respond when confronted with social norms of leniency. Specifically, we test how individuals who have a responsibility to punish transgressions behave when confronted with the social norm of preferential treatment on people's birthdays. We first establish the existence of this social norm using a scenario study. We then show that individuals behave in the opposite way than that suggested by the social norm: they punish transgressors more severely on their birthdays, both in the realm of actual drunk driving enforcement and in an experimental lab setting where participants were given the responsibility to punish. An additional experiment provides evidence that this effect is driven by psychological reactance rather than by overcompensation for potential bias. We discuss both the theoretical and practical implications of our findings.

Paper Information