Bad behavior

How do we explain the occurrence of anti-social behavior that we witness in everyday life? For that matter, how do we explain the more common occurrence of good behavior?

There are numerous extreme examples of anti-social behavior. But more prosaic examples are more interesting.

  • A passenger on a jet airliner becomes enraged at being denied additional alcohol; screams at and punches flight attendants; attempts to open the hatch at 20,000 feet.
  • A couple continue to talk loudly on their cellphones — during a blacktie dinner, interfering with the keynote speaker’s presentation. When asked to be quiet, they say indignantly, “this is important.”
  • A business traveler marches to the front of the security line and squeezes in front, saying, “I’m in a rush.”
  • A parent enters a crowded elevator with a three-year-old child and stands by as the child presses all 15 buttons.

Most people are “polite”. Most people treat others with consideration and respect. Most recognize the limits imposed on their behavior by the needs, wants and rights of others. But some do not — they behave badly.

I’m mostly interested here in the minor forms of bad behavior — disturbing or endangering others, confronting others with aggressively rude behavior, taking more than a reasonable amount of “space” in public settings. Behaving boorishly is what I’m talking about — noisy, intrusive, rude, and self-centered actions that impose on others or that greatly privilege one’s own immediate wants. This is the kind of behavior that once was attributed to American tourists, though today it seems to be the monopoly of no particular nationality. (I’ve just been on vacation, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of it.)

So now to hypotheses. Perhaps people behave badly because —

  • They don’t see how their behavior affects other people.
  • They haven’t internalized the norms defining appropriate behavior in public.
  • They reason that the norms don’t apply to them in these circumstances.
  • They overvalue their own importance in a social setting. “My needs are more important than yours.”
  • They think “I deserve this — I’ve worked for it and these other people can take it or leave it.”

What these hypotheses amount to is either a failure to recognize the nature of one’s behavior in the circumstances, a failure to have adequately internalized the relevant social norms of behavior, an inability to recognize the legitimate and normal wants of others, or combinations of all these.

This subject is relevant to “understandingsociety” because it fundamentally has to do with social behavior, norms, and the cognitive-practical frameworks through which people generate their actions. In order to understand this behavior we need to know how people understand their own presence within a social setting. We need to know how they construct an ongoing representation along these lines “What’s going on here? What’s my role in this social encounter? What’s expected of me? How much entitlement do I have to shape the encounter, versus the others present?” And we need to know how important conformance to local norms is to them. The oilman talking too loudly in the dining room at the Paris Ritz-Carlton may not know that local standards call for more decorous conversation, he may be thinking he’s in his own private club back in Houston — or he may just not care about the standards and the peace and quiet of the other guests.

Seen properly, then, this is an occasion for verstehen — interpretation of the puzzling actions of others in terms of an extended hypothesis about the states of mind and motive from which the action emanated and “makes sense”. And there is a lot of social cognition — or failures of cognition — that goes into bad behavior.

Agency, action, and norms

How do norms influence behavior? More fundamentally, what is a norm?

The question arises for two separate reasons. First, we are interested in knowing why people behave as they do (agency). And second, we are interested in knowing how large social factors (moral and cognitive frameworks, for example) exert influence over individuals (social causation).

The agency question is the more fundamental. Philosophers typically want to answer the question in terms of a model of practical rationality and deliberation. One philosophical answer derives from Aristotle and represents action as the result of rational deliberation. Individuals have a set of goals and values; they have a set of beliefs about the world; and they deliberate about the choices they confront with the aim of achieving their goals consistent with their values, given their beliefs about the world. But philosophers and thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Skinner, or Adorno would take issue with this reason-centered theory of action. Other sources of behavior might include unconscious habits or prejudices, instincts, impulses, emotions, and role-playing. A model that incorporates these diverse possible influences on action is unavoidably complex — but human behavior is likewise complex.

Now let’s try to locate the role of norms within a theory of agency. Norms have to do with the reasons and motives that people have for their actions. A norm is a particular kind of influence on action: it is a rule of behavior that leads someone to do something that is otherwise contrary to immediate impulse or interest. Norms get us to do things we don’t want to do.

We might say, then, that a norm is a rule of behavior — for example, “Don’t wear shorts to a business meeting,” “Don’t take coins from the blind man’s cup,” “Give up your seat on the bus to a disabled person.” And a rule can either be internally or externally represented; this means that the the rule may be internalized into the agent’s process of decision-making, or it may influence the agent’s behavior through punishments and rewards.

Even this simple discussion raises questions, however. Do norms have to be consciously accessible to the agent? Is a moral principle such as “Always keep your promises” a norm, or do ethical principles fall in a different category? Do norms have rational justification, or are they simply an accidental social product like tastes or styles?

As for the ways in which norms influence behavior —

It would seem that there are only a few mechanisms through which norms could possibly influence individual and collective behavior, largely distinguished by being external and internal.

First, it may be that there is an effective mechanism of social education through which each individual develops or activates an internally regulative system of norms or rules. This process can be described as “moral education.” The most superficial observation of social behavior indicates that this is so, and social psychologists and sociologists have some ideas about how these systems work. But the bottom line appears fairly clear: individuals who are reared in normal human settings eventually possess action-behavior systems that embody a set of personal norms that influence their conduct. We might draw the analogy to the example of language learning: a normal human child is exposed to the linguistic behavior of others, and arrives at a psychologically realized grammar that guides his/her own language production.

Second, a norm might be embodied in the attitudes, judgment, and behavior of others in such a way that their actions and reactions create incentives and disincentives for the actor. For example, others may possess a set of norms concerning civility in public discourse, and they may punish or reward others according to whether their words are consistent with these norms. In this case the agent conforms to the requirements of the norm out of a calculation of costs and benefits of performance. (It would appear that there is a possibility of circularity here: the externally imposed norm depends upon the internally embodied norm of enforcement of the content of the rule on the part of others.)

Third, it might be the case that there are some norms of inter-personal behavior that are hard-wired. Some norms might have a biological, evolutionary basis. This is the line of thought that sociobiologists have explored with varying levels of success. The emotional responses that adults have to infants and children probably fall in this category — though it is a conceptually interesting question to consider whether these emotional responses are “norms” or simply features of the affective system. This is relevant to the work that Allan Gibbard does in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Gibbard’s fundamental insight seems to be that there must be an evolutionary basis for the “norm-acquisition system” — the features of human psychology that permit them to acquire certain kinds of moral motives (altruism, friendship, fairness).

So — what can we say about norms? Human beings act on the basis of deliberation, norm, impulse, and emotion. So our theory of practical rationality and action must make a place for the workings of norms. Second, norms are transmitted to individuals through concrete social processes — family experiences, schooling, religious institutions, etc. Our theories of social life must incorporate an account of the processes of normative education through which individuals come to possess a particular normative structure. These experiences are the counterpart to the exposure to language on the part of the infant. And third, norms are socially enforced through the actions of others. So norms are socially embodied — in the institutions of enforcement, the institutions and practices of moral education, and in the practical cognition of the individuals who make up the society.