London: Larger violation of social norms in public spaces may not lead to stronger reaction from public than smaller violations, finds a new study.
The research team investigated how people respond to large and small violations of social norms in public spaces.
The study published in the journal Nature Communications refutes the assumption that larger violations tend to be punished more severely than smaller offences.
The researchers staged small violations (littering a coffee cup) and large violations (littering a coffee cup and bag of trash) at train stations in Germany and recorded how travellers responded in more than 800 trials.
The implicit assumption was that bystanders would react more strongly if more garbage was littered, hence the norm violation was greater.
However, the size of the violation did not affect the likelihood that the litterer would be reprimanded — nor did it affect the intensity of the reprimand.
Travellers have more negative emotions toward the larger violation and felt that it should be reprimanded more severely.
Despite these emotional responses, however, the surveyed individuals admitted that they would be reluctant to confront or punish such violations in real-life settings.
The scientists explain this reluctance with the perceived risk of retaliation by the norm violator. The greater the norm violation, the greater the retaliation might be.
Bystanders feared that in cases of a more severe social norm violation, the person’s reaction would be stronger when confronted or reprimanded.
“The study shows that social self-regulation has its limits. Up to a certain point, we reprimand each other for bad behaviour. But in cases of more extreme norm violations, social self-regulation no longer works and we need authorities, police and security personnel,” said Bettina Rockenbach, Professor at the University of Cologne, Germany.