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Living up, or down, to expectations

Ever feel like screwing up on the job just because your boss treats you like you are an accident waiting to happen? You’re not the only one. Consider this study:

April 18, 2017  By Dorothy Cotton

Two groups of people are assigned to carry out a work task (let’s say they are making widgets), and are told they will be paid according to how many widgets they finish. In actuality, everyone is paid the same amount no matter how many widgets they make — but no one knows this. Everyone has to share the proceeds. So when widgetmaking is completed, each person has to report how much money they got. The boss tells one group: “If you under-report your income, you will be penalized by 25%. The purpose of this penalty is to deter you from lying about your income.” The boss tells the second group: “If you under-report your income, you will be penalized by 25%.” No reason is given.

Of course since everyone actually received the same amount of money, you can tell which group is lying more when they report their income. And it is the first group, the group that was given the rationale for why the penalty was imposed. Both groups under-reported their income — but the first group under-reported more.

And why might that be? It appears that the first group did not trust the boss — and the reason they did not trust the boss was because the boss did not trust them. By explaining that the penalty was intended as deterrence, the boss has made it clear that he expects his workers to lie. He does not trust them. And therefore the workers kind of thought, “Well, if THAT’S what you think of me then….”

So consider a variation on the same theme. Same exercise, same task, same pay as the one before. This time, the boss tells one group what the penalty will be and then adds, “The primary aim of the fine is to give team members who misreport revenue their just deserts.” The other group just gets told there is a fine if they get caught lying, as was the case in the second group above. What happens? People were still a little grumpy and still felt a little distrusted after the “just deserts” explanation — but not as much as in the deterrence condition. They lied/underreported less in the just deserts condition as well.


It turns out that people are generally okay with being told that people who have been caught breaking the rules will get what they deserve — but they are not so fond of you assuming that they are going to break the rules.

The two experiments I have just described are two of five described in a paper by Marlon Mooijman and some colleagues at various universities around the world, all of which address the question of how the way in which you justify a sanction affects the degree to which people actually comply with what you had in mind to start with. In other words, they are asking, “Does the way in which policy makers or other authorities justify their sanctions affect the degree to which people are actually likely to follow the rules?” The answer appears to be “yes,” but the result is likely not what most people think it is.

Needless to say, sanctions are supposed to be aimed at that subgroup of people who are most likely to break the rule in question. Fines for speeding should be aimed at people who are likely to speed (which is probably almost everyone). But what about penalties for cheating on your income tax? Robbing a bank? One could argue that everyone would do that if they thought they could get away with it — but actually that is probably not true. Most people are honest. So if you establish a policy that assumes that everyone is a cheater just waiting for an opportunity, it tends to piss people off. How dare you just ASSUME that I am going to cheat!?!? It’s enough to make a person cheat! And apparently, people are more likely to cheat. This is not the overall goal.

One can argue about whether sanctions are really an effective way to decrease rule breaking at all — but that is a discussion for another day. What is clear from this research and a whole body of research on use of sanctions, is that governments and policy makers who use a lot of sanctions in efforts to decrease rule breaking tend to be governments and authorities who do not have a lot of trust in their people to begin with. This becomes more apparent to the people in question when these authorities are open about saying “I am doing this so you will not break the rules.” People do not like that, it makes them distrust the authorities, and it makes them more likely to break the rules. The essential ingredient in this relationship seems to be trust. If people feel like they are being trusted, if they are dealt with respectfully, they are more likely to follow the rules. But if they do not feel they are trusted, then they tend to doubt the legitimacy of the authority imposing the sanctions. It gets even more complicated when one notes that the more powerful an authority is, the more they tend to resort to sanctions and the more they are perceived as being unworthy of trust.

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to think about how this might play out in policing, within specific groups who feel they are unfairly targeted and mistrusted by police. Or in organizations with very authoritarian hierarchies and management structures.

So are sanctions a good idea at all? I am not going there, but if you want to use sanctions, and you want people to actually stop breaking rules, when you explain the sanctions, you might emphasize that the sanctions are meant to give the people who do violate the rules their just deserts, or you might give no rationale at all; you might make it clear that the deterrence is meant ONLY for the people who are breaking the rules — not for everyone. After all, if you know me and you seem to think I am a person who is going to break the rules, I just may feel compelled to live up (or down) to your expectations.

Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line’s psychology columnist. She can be contacted at:

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