Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

Off the Hook? Mistaken Expectations of Leniency in the Punishment of Transgressions

by Celia Moore, Lamar Pierce and Francesca Gino


This paper combines experimental and field data to examine how those with the responsibility to enforce rules may penalize transgressors more harshly when they are faced with a conflicting motivation to be lenient. Specifically, we test how transgressors are punished when it is their birthday: a day when social norms dictate people should be treated preferentially. We first establish that individuals expect leniency on their birthday. We then show that, compared to other days, transgressors are in fact penalized more severely for transgressing rules when it is their birthday, both by law enforcement (using more than 134,000 arrest records for drunk driving in Washington State) and by participants with responsibility to enforce rules in an experimental lab setting. We also show that this effect is driven by psychological reactance. We discuss both the theoretical and practical implications of our findings.

Keywords: bias; discrimination; ethics; leniency; transgressions; punishment; Prejudice and Bias; Behavior; Ethics; Societal Protocols;


Moore, Celia, Lamar Pierce, and Francesca Gino. "Off the Hook? Mistaken Expectations of Leniency in the Punishment of Transgressions." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-101, June 2013. (Revised October 2013, January 2014.)