Bryan Caplan  

When Is It Safe to Thumb Your Nose?

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A challenge from Robin Hanson:

Bryan commented:

Modern parents' depend primarily on the market, not other parents - to meet their needs - and parent-on-parent sanctions are small and sporadic in any case.

How far Bryan will take this argument?  What other common social norms do people worry too much about, because in fact school or work will never know, friends and family hardly notice or care, and neighbors don't matter?  For example, do people worry too much about clothes they wear, or swear words they utter, at home, while shopping, or at the park?  Or if someone felt inclined to torture small animals (legally), would informal social sanctions among friends and family really offer little barrier to openly pursuing this hobby?  And if animal-torture would go too far, where exactly is the line?

My specific answers:

1. Clothes.  If you're single or on-the-job, keep worrying.  If you're married and off-the-job, suit yourself - and your spouse.

2. Swearing.  If swearing bothers you or the person you're with, don't do it.  Otherwise, you've got almost nothing to worry about.

3. Animal-torture. Imprudent in front of almost anyone.  It's so extreme, word will spread and there will be blowback.

My general answer: I can't define the line.  But as long as you keep your personal and work life separate, you can almost always ignore career consequences.  And if you're married, "keep your spouse happy" is 95% of what you need to know.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
jb writes:

It seems like you've just described tiers of social norms -

Tier 1 - stuff that almost everyone in your neighborhood does sometimes, and so people will generally overlook/ignore/shrug off that behavior in others, unless it is constant, in which case, you're probably bordering on Tier 2.

Tier 2 - stuff that happens occasionally in your neighborhood. If it happens with you more often than the norm, eyebrows will be raised. It will be talked about. Some of your neighbors will feel uncomfortable. If it happens constantly, you're probably bordering on Tier 3.

Tier 3 - stuff that simply doesn't happen in your neighborhood, at least not in anything exceeding trace levels. This is where people will get really uncomfortable with you. If it happens enough, you'll face legal trouble, vandalism, etc.

And you and your spouse represent the very small neighborhood at the center of the larger areas.

Robin Hanson writes:

I added to my post in response.

Pandaemoni writes:

So why do people bother to tip cabbies? I can't say I have ever had the same cab driver twice ever, and even if I am riding with someone, they can't see how much I am tipping the driver when I pay the fare.

The same is true whenever you are in a restaurant that you know you are unlikely to return to, the consequences of nor tipping, or of being extremely stingy, are nearly zero, yet I know I still tip in those situations.

While people do cheat and flout social norms more often when we can get away with it, I think that, as a social species, most people incorporate social norms into their personal utility functions to some degree. We comply with the rules not solely out of a fear of being caught, but in part also because we were raised with the norm and we prefer to follow it.

Lori writes:

What Pandaemoni said. And I think keeping personal and work life separate is excellent advice. Ideally one's social life is firmly planted in the former category. One big barrier to this major component of QOL is the tacit assumption nowadays that people are expected to 'network.'

Rick Stewart writes:

An obvious example is smoking marijuana. 90% of the US population says they don't know anyone who smokes marijuana. But 90% of the US population (not the same 90%) actually does know someone who smokes marijuana (about 10% of the US population smokes marijuana once a month or more).

Marijuana smokers hide their behavior from everyone except other marijuana smokers, in almost all cases.

Of course much of this has to do with illegality - who wants to go to prison because your neighbor turned out to be less tolerant of your illegal activity than you thought s/he would be?

Much, however, is simply due to the fact not that your neighbor will turn you in, but that s/he may express strong disapproval of your conduct. Ignorant, irrational, uninformed disapproval perhaps, but disapproval nevertheless, and thus a reason not to clue him/her in.

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