Folkways and Laws

June 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stateways cannot change folkways. Or can they?

Henry at Crooked Timber, who has apparently spent some time in the pubs of Ireland, says he never expected the Irish to obey the new anti-smoking law. But they did. Henry’s explanation is not that he underestimated the power of the law but that he overestimated the strength of the norms:
prevailing norms (that Irish people can smoke in pubs to their hearts’ content, and that others will just have to put up with it) were much more fragile than they appeared to be
In France too, and Italy, many people were sure that smokers would ignore new restrictions on indoor smoking, but the bans in those countries have been surprisingly effective.

The crucial point is not that social scientists misread the norms but that the smokers on the ground did. It’s a case of “pluralistic ignorance,” a phrase coined by Floyd Allport in the early 20th century to describe this misreading. Most people have doubts about the norm (in this case, the norm that smoking is O.K.), but each thinks that others support it, so each person publicly states support for the norm and keeps his doubts to himself, which only leads everyone to further misread just how weak the norm really is.

Attribution theory has a related explanation. When we see someone behave in a certain way, we are quick to attribute a whole set of motives and characteristics to the person. If someone is smoking, it must be because he wants to. He is a smoker. On top of that, if we see nonsmokers in a pub where there is smoking, and they are not objecting, we conclude that they have no objections. In both cases, we are using our observations of behavior to make simplistic assumptions about what’s in the minds of the people we observe.

If we thought about it for a couple of seconds, we’d realize that most people who smoke feel at least ambivalent about smoking. They’d like to quit and have probably tried to more than once. A ban on smoking indoors gives them one more external push to do what they want to do anyway.

Something similar happened when New York City passed a “pooper scooper” law thirty years ago. By the late 1970s in New York City, dog droppings in the public areas of the city – the parks, streets, and sidewalks – had reached a level that many people found disgusting. It was a shitty version of the tragedy of the commons. Each individual acted out of self-interest (walking away was more pleasant than scooping up the poop) with a result that made the city less pleasant for all.

Many people thought the new law would have no effect. They were applying a rational, economic analysis. True, there was a fine for not cleaning up. But the city had much heavier fines for running red lights, and still many New York drivers continued to treat stop lights more as a suggestion than as a command. Besides, it was very unlikely that a cop would be around at the precise moment a dog owner walked away leaving the incriminating evidence. The law was all but unenforceable. How could anyone seriously expect New Yorkers, of all people, to cooperate?

But much to the surprise of most people, including New Yorkers themselves, the law worked. Dog owners did clean up, even though they could easily have gotten away with violating the new law. But why? Here’s my guess: Even before the new law, dog owners had probably thought that cleaning up after their dogs was the right thing to do, but since everyone else was leaving the stuff on the sidewalk, nobody wanted to be the only schmuck in New York to be picking up dog shit. In the same way that the no-smoking laws worked because smokers wanted to quit, the dog law in New York worked because dog owners really did agree that they should be cleaning up after their dogs. But prior to the law, none of them would speak or act on that idea.

So it looks as though stateways can indeed change folkways, at least when the folks want to change.

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