#staythefhome Why people don’t follow rules even in a pandemic

Published on Aug 4, 2020

by Dr. Duck

Ever noticed that it’s always a ‘Top 10’ list and never a Top 11 or 9? Perhaps there’s something instinctive about a Top 10 that is buried deep in our psyche? Top 10s might relate to this old story (or history?) where God gave us the Top 10 rules of horrible things to avoid at all costs: The 10 Commandments.

But before you exit this blog out of fear Dr Duck has suddenly become evangelical, you don’t have to be all that religious to know about the Big 10. The 10 Commandments have been popularised in cinema, television shows. You’ve no doubt heard of them. If not, don’t worry. Most of them are mirrored in laws practiced all over the world.

There’s a couple on the list we all think are rather sensible, like not killing or stealing. In modern laws, we’ve even upgraded these basic rules to entertain circumstances some of these things aren’t too bad if, say, someone is trying to kill you or if you are starving. 

The purpose of these doctrines, whether they are written in bibles, enshrined in laws, or simply scribbled on bits of paper over kitchen sinks in office buildings (PLEASE clean up after yourself!), is ultimately to discourage behaviours we don’t like.

And, let’s face it, no matter what penalties are put in place, they are never 100% effective. Even the prospect of being executed does not completely deter people from murder. Sometimes people even go on to commit more than one murder. Why is that?

The biggest issue with rules is that many seem to think that simply drafting a list of rules and communicating them is enough to bring about changes in behaviour. But this is almost never the case. Yet, we keep doing it.

Throughout my career, I have noted constant annoyance, anger and fury over individuals doing ‘stupid things’ and working around the system of rules. When rules don’t seem to work, we seem to think adding more will resolve the issue because it worked so well the first time…right?

Today, we are witnessing an endless series of new rules introduced in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many rules are followed. Some are bent. And some are broken.

Social media has run rampant with vilifying individuals, workplaces, families, travellers, politicians, and medical professionals for failing to follow rules or address rule breaches. Hashtags like #staythefhome—censored here—are expressions of this frustration with others.

And almost every other week, more rules are put in place to address the gaps in previous rules, which were in place to address foundational practices, which were probably full of holes in the first place.

But given that rules almost always fail, why do we rush to implement them as a first course of action? In light of the Top 10 theme of this blog, I couldn’t help put my own ‘Top 10 Rule Commandments’, which can be used to make a more effective rule.

Commandment #1. When in doubt, don’t create a rule at all.

How many of us enjoyed the rule ‘eat everything on your plate or no dessert’ when growing up? How well do your kids like it? In the Western World, one of our biggest issues is overeating so it’s always puzzling why we are so fixated on ensuring our kids don’t undereat.

Rules are the bluntest tool to modify and shift behaviour. They aggravate people, reduce autonomy, and often need to be monitored with applied punishment when the individual fails to comply. They also frustrate the person who writes the rules and the rule followers as well (#staythefhome!).

In the short-term they often just lead to resentment amongst all those involved.

Commandment #2. Remove the problem through design not instruction.

In our office building, there was a door to access the suites upstairs that was always being left open at night by accident. Because it was always propped open during the day, the last person to leave would often wander out, forgetting to close it out of habit. This continued to happen time and time again even though the landlord insisted that all tenants must follow the door closing procedures!

A year of reinforcing the door closing policy failed until a locksmith was brought in to install a door closer. There was never another incident after that.

This problem is common. We avoid a simple solution perhaps because it costs more or feels heavy handed. We underestimate the time, effort, cost and frustration of implementing new rules and procedures.

Often a simple design or technology solutions that can eliminate the risk more elegantly and remove the need to constantly reinforce the same message.

Commandment #3. Pitch the rule at the right level.

A classic issue with rules is over-prescription—where the user is not allowed to use judgement but are instructed exactly how to do everything. When COVID-19 virus hit in 2020, countries created shopping lists of ‘Do Nots’ to prevent the spread of the virus.

The problem with these lists is that there is always something left off and because we have assumed and reinforced to the person that they cannot use their own judgement, the absence of a prohibition becomes an excuse to do something risky.

Commandment #4. Harmonise the rules.

Over time, it becomes essential to examine where the various rules become too exhaustive that even the most diligent, law abiding person would fail to meet all of them. I once worked with the Victorian Road Rules expert who had a deep knowledge of almost every road rule. This expert couldn’t even remember every rule so it’s pretty unlikely the average person could or should.

In many instances, new rules are written on top of an older one that overlaps with another and so on. Harmonising means cutting the rules right back to a set of mutually exclusive ones that produce the same result in fewer numbers. This means they’re easier to communicate, remember, and follow.

Commandment #5. Consider the user’s motivation to follow the rule.

Ultimately what we end up doing each day depends on how motivated we are. When we are highly motivated to achieve a goal, it takes considerable force to prevent us from pursuing it, especially when the goal is clear, rewarding, and attainable.

In the COVID-19 world, people have been genuinely furious with others who have gone to work sick, sometimes knowing they have been infected. But what motivates a person to clearly do something so risky? As frustrating as it may be, for many people the motivation to earn money and support a family trumps most other things, including viruses.

The prospect of getting a serious illness will not feel likely to many. Instead, it’s likely to be a vague threat. In contrast, feeding and supporting a family, paying the rent, or buying food is a highly salient goal and difficult to counter.

Where a motivation is so strong, the penalty needs to be an almost equal and opposite force. Otherwise, investment into a desirable alternative should be considered, such as incentives to experiment with the preferred behaviour (e.g. staying at home).

Commandment #6. Don’t be petty.

When the umpire in a tennis match oversees the various rules, some flexibility is needed. Occasionally, a player takes a bit too long between sets, allowing them time to rest and recover. In some situations, the umpire warns the player and they quickly jump back into action. In other situations, the umpire can more precisely apply the rules to the second. To do so would be more accurate but would also lead to a constant string of warnings, fines, and frustrated players.

Similarly, recent COVID-19 lockdowns saw a series of penalties applied in lower risk situation, such as a daughter practising driving with her mum. Technically, this was non-compliant with rules but also not really doing much harm either. Being overzealous with the rules can undermine good will and spread word of mouth that undermines the same rules in a more serious context.

Commandment #7. Utilise social rules / norms instead.

I have found recent trends for workplaces to apply unlimited personal leave to be intriguing. This approach is essentially a ‘no rules’ approach to personal leave, in line with Commandment #1. However, the reality is that the rule ‘unlimited leave’ is really just replaced by a social rule ‘take as much leave as you feel you deserve’.

In these instances, the social rule is stronger because failing to follow social norms leads to feelings of anxiety and shame. A rule like unlimited leave could paradoxically lead to employees feeling implied pressure to work more and demonstrate their work ethic. So, social norms are often a good place to start when trying to change behaviour in the long-term.

Commandment #8. Give the rule a purpose for the user.

There is no shortage of dumb rules. My favourite one is where a service provider states it’s their internal ‘policy’ that prohibits them from doing something sensible, like call you over the phone to resolve an issue. This rule is basically designed to cut down on phone call conversations and save money not because it service a genuine aspiration.

Commandment #9. Communicate the rule clearly.

If all else fails and you simply must introduce a new rule, then at the very least make it succinct and clear. How many times have you been caught out by a cryptic parking sign that seemed to allow parking for 1 hr only to learn that only on special occasions, at certain times, or under a full moon? There’s nothing more unfair than breaching a rule that you didn’t know was even there or one that somehow entrapped you to breach it!

Commandment #10. Always assume the rule will be broken.

The most common frustration of rules is when they are not followed. But even the harshest threats of punishment fail to stop rule breaches 100% of the time otherwise the electric chair would never need juice.

This Commandment is the most important, because if you are safeguarding a potential catastrophe, you also need to assume that someone is going to eventually circumvent the rule either on purpose or by error. The recent failure of quarantine in Melbourne is believed to be due to a breakdown in security protocol. Evidently, people disobeyed the quarantine rules and this led to an outbreak.

But if we followed the 10 Rule Commandments, we’d assume this was inevitable. We might question why we couldn’t design something to stop a loss of containment. We might also consider all the motivational factors, such as the need for human contact, and the removal of discomfort and frustration, as well as other things that could have prevented the incident.

Maybe even a simple door closer could have done the trick. Well, maybe a bit more than that but you get the point.

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at nick@opposite.com.au.

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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