The power of culture or the power of economics?

Alright, alright, enough of the hiatus! Let’s get back to this here thing.

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.  Continue reading “The power of culture or the power of economics?”