Pick Up Your Kids on Time, Please
Let’s say you run a daycare center and you wanted to reduce the amount of parents who pick up their children late. What would you do? Credit card companies impose late fees when we don’t pay by a certain due date, libraries impose fines on overdue books, so would imposing a fine on parents picking up their children late be an effective deterrent? Sounds reasonable right?
Wrong. In fact, there was a daycare that actually implemented this and it had long-term negative consequences.
Why? That’s because we live simultaneously in two different worlds— one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms dictate the rules. Social norms are those friendly requests that people make to one another. You ask your neighbor: Would you mind walking my dog next weekend while I’m on my business trip? Or you ask a friend who lives nearby: Can you help me change my flat tire? For things like these, instant payback is not necessary but keeps a door open for future reciprocity.
On the other hand, we also have a world governed by market norms, which is very different. These are things like wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for—nothing more, nothing less.
Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late, they felt guilty about it—and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future.
But once the fine was imposed, the daycare center had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late. Needless to say, this was not what the daycare center intended.
A few weeks later after realizing that the fine didn’t work in reducing tardy parents, the daycare removed the fine. What do you think happened to the behavior of those parents? Did they go back to social norms as well and start feeling guilty? Nope. Even though the fine was removed, the behavior of the parents didn’t change and continued to pick up their kids late. In fact, there was an increase in the number of tardy pickups since now both the social norms and the fine had been removed.
The Cost of Sex and Love
When we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life runs pretty smoothly. Let’s take sex, for instance. We can have it for free in the social context, where it is warm and emotionally nourishing. But there’s also a market for sex, sex that is on demand and that costs money. As long as we keep these two realms separate, there shouldn’t be any problems. We shouldn’t expect to charge a boyfriend or girlfriend $50 each time they want sex, nor should we expect prostitutes to provide us with everlasting love. Makes sense. But when social and market norms collide, all hell breaks loose.
Let’s say a guy takes a girl out for dinner and a movie, and he pays for everything. They go out again, and he pays the bills once more. They go out a third time, and he’s still springing for the meal and the entertainment. At this point, he’s hoping for at least a passionate kiss at the front door. His wallet is getting perilously thin, but worse is what’s going on in his head: he’s having trouble reconciling the social norm (courtship) with the market norm (money for sex). On the fourth date he casually mentions how much this “romance” is costing him. Bzzzzzzt! Now he’s crossed the line. She calls him cheap and storms off. He should have known that one can’t mix social and market norms—especially in this case—without implying that the she is a tramp. (This is just one hypothetical scenario, though. I would never condone dating someone who doesn’t at least offer to pay their share after the second date.)
The point is that introducing market norms into social exchanges, violates the social norms (whatever they may be) and hurts the relationships. Once this type of mistake has been committed, recovering a social relationship is close to impossible. If you’ve ever offered a potential romantic partner the chance to cut to the chase, split the cost of the courting process, and simply go to bed, the odds are that you will have wrecked the romance forever.
What Should I Do When Social Norms Aren’t Clear?
If you’ve learned anything from the past two examples, you know that the last thing you want to do is make your date into a market transaction. But what about in situations like gay dating when social norms aren’t clear? Who pays for dinner? The entertainment? There are, in fact, many norms to choose from: Should you follow the old-fashioned way of courtship and have the more masculine guy pay for both people? (WTF, are you serious?) Should the guy who asks the other to go out treat him? Should one guy pay more often if he is making more money? Should they split the bill equally each time? What do you choose?
My advice: go read Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions if you’re still unsure.