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Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Doesn't everybody jaywalk? On codified rules that are seldom followed and selectively punished

Wylie, J., & Gantman, A.
Cognition, Volume 231, February 2023, 105323


Rules are meant to apply equally to all within their jurisdiction. However, some rules are frequently broken without consequence for most. These rules are only occasionally enforced, often at the discretion of a third-party observer. We propose that these rules—whose violations are frequent, and enforcement is rare—constitute a unique subclass of explicitly codified rules, which we call ‘phantom rules’ (e.g., proscribing jaywalking). Their apparent punishability is ambiguous and particularly susceptible to third-party motives. Across six experiments, (N = 1,440) we validated the existence of phantom rules and found evidence for their motivated enforcement. First, people played a modified Dictator Game with a novel frequently broken and rarely enforced rule (i.e., a phantom rule). People enforced this rule more often when the “dictator” was selfish (vs. fair) even though the rule only proscribed fractional offers (not selfishness). Then we turned to third person judgments of the U.S. legal system. We found these violations are recognizable to participants as both illegal and commonplace (Experiment 2), differentiable from violations of prototypical laws (Experiments 3) and enforced in a motivated way (Experiments 4a and 4b). Phantom rule violations (but not prototypical legal violations) are seen as more justifiably punished when the rule violator has also violated a social norm (vs. rule violation alone)—unless the motivation to punish has been satiated (Experiment 5). Phantom rules are frequently broken, codified rules. Consequently, their apparent punishability is ambiguous, and their enforcement is particularly susceptible to third party motives.

General Discussion

In this paper, we identified a subset of rules, which are explicitly codified (e.g., in professional tennis, in an economic game, by the U.S. legal system), frequently violated, and rarely enforced. As a result, their apparent punishability is particularly ambiguous and subject to motivation. These rules show us that codified rules, which are meant to apply equally to all, can be used to sanction behaviors outside of their jurisdiction. We named this subclass of rules phantom rules and found evidence that people enforce them according to their desire to punish a different behavior (i.e., a social norm violation), recognize them in the U.S. legal system, and employ motivated reasoning to determine their punishability. We hypothesized and found, across behavioral and survey experiments, that phantom rules—rules where the descriptive norms of enforcement are low—seem enforceable, punishable, and legitimate only when one has an external active motivation to punish. Indeed, we found that phantom rules were judged to be more justifiably enforced and more morally wrong to violate when the person who broke the rule had also violated a social norm—unless they were also punished for that social norm violation. Together, we take this as evidence of the existence of phantom rules and the malleability of their apparent punishability via active (vs. satiated) punishment motivation.

The ambiguity of phantom rule enforcement makes it possible for them to serve a hidden function; they can be used to punish behavior outside of the purview of the official rules. Phantom rule violations are technically wrong, but on average, seen as less morally wrong.This means, for the most part, that people are unlikely to feel strongly when they see these rules violated, and indeed, people frequently violate phantom rules without consequence. This pattern fits well with previous work in experimental philosophy that shows that motivations can affect how we reason about what constitutes breaking a rule in the first place. For example, when rule breaking occurs blameless (e.g., unintentionally), people are less likely to say a rule was violated at all and look for reasons to excuse their behavior(Turri, 2019; Turri & Blouw, 2015). Indeed, our findings mirror this pattern. People find a reason to punish phantom rule violations only when people are particularly or dispositionally motivated to punish.