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Introducing solutions: norms and sanctions

In this step we discuss some social control mechanisms that help prevent freeriding, on public transport and more generally, in situations related to
Public transport access gates

Our everyday experience shows us that there are solutions that help us prevent freeriding, both in public transport, and more generally, in situations related to sharing or cooperating.

Cities receive revenues from selling train tickets, community gardens are blooming, people in general deal with rules of behavior in common spaces, group tasks are often prepared by more than one person, people are sorting trash and not all kitchens are full of dirty dishes. Let’s try to look deeper at what is behind such successes.

In general, at the basis of those solutions we can see norms, rules of behaviour which are considered acceptable in a group. Those rules can be established or written, e.g. like a rule stating that you have to buy a ticket and validate it immediately after entering a bus, or like a schedule stating whose responsibility it is to water flowers in a community garden. But they can also be informal, like the desire to divide the work in a team when working on a project.

The power of social norms is based on our need of being a part of a social group (and society in general). Those who don’t follow the norms will suffer disapproval or may even become outcasts from the group. This threat is one of the faces of sanctions – traditional companions for social norms. There are a lot of types of sanctions and we won’t cover the whole typology here. A sanction can take the form of a fine when you don’t buy a ticket and the ticket inspector catches you, guilty conscience when looking at your phone in a cinema or social disapproval when you’re talking too loud in a fancy restaurant.

Sanctions can be also positive, like a formal or informal reward from a teacher to children who behave in an approved way. It means that they can have a form of both “stick” and a “carrot”. They can be used, for instance in the workplace by managers. They can use an approving smile, positive comments or financial bonuses as positive sanctions. A look of disapproval at those who don’t do their work well enough will be in this case an example of a negative sanction.

Sanctions can be both external or internal. The first group requires the participation of third parties as a source of sanctions. This “policeman” can be imposed on us or we can choose him or her to look after us and help us to follow the rules. Let’s think about a group project prepared by a few students. For the sake of the project it could be reasonable for them to choose one of them to become the team leader and to give her or him a mandate for controlling the work of the others. The second group contains the whole range of feelings known by all of us, like shame or remorse, when we break the rules. This is our inner “policeman”.

To sum up, societies have some solutions to deal with situations where individual motivations lead to non-optimal social outcomes. These are: formal and informal rules/norms, and sanctions that are social consequences of abiding by the norms or deviating from them. Sanctions may also be formal or informal, they may either be positive or negative, and external or internal. Norms and sanctions are main elements of social control systems.

Norms, sanctions and the dynamics of their functioning in societies, as well as different options of formalising such control systems in a model, are a subject that fascinated many Computational Social Sciences scientists. This week you will have a chance to explore some research on how rules and sanctions function in societies, and also experiment with applying some of them to the fishery model.

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Understanding Human Behaviour: Introduction to Game Theory and Shared Resources

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