The power of culture or the power of economics?
I recently ran across a story which mentioned a variety of studies that have found that imposing financial fines for poor behavior can actually increase that behavior. For example, studies at day care centers have found that when schools impose fines for parents who pick their children up late, they actually see an increase in the frequency of late pick-ups. It turns out that parents were more lax about picking their children up on time when they saw their obligation as financial rather than social. The social obligation to respect the time of the child care workers who would be inconvenienced by a tardy pick-up was a far more powerful motivator to good behavior than economic consequences.
Social scientists have observed this dynamic at work in a variety of settings and places around the world. Yet, over the last few years we have been trained to assume that economic issues are at the root of everything from social problems to the behavior of corporations to foreign policy affairs. Which to a certain extent makes sense. After all, economic concerns obviously have real effects on people’s behaviors and choices. For example, there was a sharp drop in the birth rate during the great depression as having a large family became more difficult economically. And we have all benefited from the increased prosperity which has resulted from our free market system where the only objective is to increase economic gain (without breaking the law, hopefully).
However, the simple truth is that humans have been social creatures much longer than we have been economic creatures. It really is difficult to overstate the power that social norms and expectations can have on people. Some years ago, I saw an experiment where a group of people was put in a room to fill out a survey. There was an actor in each group. After a few minutes, smoke alarms started going off. A staffer came into the room and told everyone to stay put. Shortly after smoke started coming in under the door of the room. All it took to keep people in a room in an apparently burning building was one person in the group (the actor) telling people who suggested that they get out that they should follow instructions and stay put and not to over react. In each group, there were only one or two people who got up and left. Think about that: the socially driven desire not to look dumb, not to cause conflict and to follow instructions were all it took to keep most people in a burning building.
This is why conservatives (at least traditionalist conservatives) generally scoff at the notion that poor people aren’t getting married because of economics or that criminals are responding to a lack of jobs. The simple fact is that economics can make life easier or harder, but if something is socially proscribed, it is hard to pay people enough to do it. Most people would be unwilling to do something fairly harmless like stand on a busy street corner naked for 10 minutes for almost any amount of money. Yet, we seem to think that it is perfectly logical to assume that stronger culture and social norms would not be particularly useful in stopping people from engaging in undesirable and even personally destructive behavior as long as there are other economic factors at work. Yet experience tells us that concern for social obligations and norms tends to motivate people more powerfully than economic concerns do.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with the economic well being of people. IMO, a concern for making sure that people have enough to survive ought to be one of those social obligations which it would be hard to pay us enough to break. However, when we insist on approaching problems as if economics are the main driver, we are quite likely to fail. Not only that, but when we work under the assumption that economic concerns are our driving motivators, we compound the problem. This is because by focusing almost exclusively on economics, we are shifting our social norms and obligations from people oriented concerns to money oriented matters.
This is problematic in two ways. First, as discussed above, we are far more devoted to and willing to make sacrifices for those concerns which revolve around people and relationships than we are for those concerns that simply entail money. So if we try to transfer the power of social obligations from people to money, we make those social obligations less powerful as we naturally find the needs of people more compelling than economic concerns are. IOW, a social contract oriented around money will never have the force of a social contract oriented around people and relationships. This is why emphasizing the economic benefit of education, work, marriage and children in that order will never be as effective in producing desired outcomes as the social pressure to do these things simply because “that’s what good people do” once was.
The other problem with organizing social norms around economic concerns is that the very things we hope to obtain through economic means (happiness, comfort, a better life for our kids, positive relationships, respect, etc.) tend to be undermined by an excessive concern with economic issues. Money can’t make up for not spending time with your kids, not being able/willing to listen to those around you, not having any free time to relax, unresolved emotional issues, etc. OTOH, there is a pretty strong correlation between adhering to people oriented social norms (marriage, honesty, reducing conflict, spending time building relationships, developing strong character, etc) and achieving at least moderate financial success. True, those who succeed while breaking all the social rules do tend to succeed more extravagantly than those who don’t. However, they are the exception. Most people who insist on breaking all the social rules come out far worse than those who follow people oriented social rules. On the whole, people oriented social norms and obligations will produce positive results both economically and personally, while economically oriented social norms tend to undermine our personal well being while bringing marginal, if any, actual economic benefits.
The reason I think that this is important for us to understand is because a proper understanding of this dynamic between the economic and social can better equip us to meet the various problems we face today. In our society today, we are leaning very heavily on economics as a solution to the problems which face us. Most of the arguments for proper behavior on the part of individuals and even corporations and countries revolve around emphasizing the economic benefits of proper behavior. Of course, the links between good behavior and economic benefits can be tenuous and such arguments are often not very compelling anyways. We also create unsolvable problems when we insist that the economic foundations must be fixed in order for a problem to be solved. If we insist that our inner city schools must have more money before they can be fixed, we have made the problem unsolvable until the input of money reaches some magical and essentially unknowable level.
However, if we can understand that social and relational norms and expectations are the most powerful tools we have in influencing positive behavior, we can begin to look at ways to make positive changes without having to restructure whole communities and economic systems. We do it through the way we interact with those around us, through the choices we make and through the way we raise our kids. In large part, I think this means being willing to take those things which undermine healthy social norms seriously. It means, oddly enough, being willing to violate what have become the social norms in our culture in order to live out a set of values oriented around people and relationships rather than around money and radical independence.