| HBS Working Paper Series
Social Norms Versus Social Responsibility: False Expectations of Leniency in the Punishment of Transgressions
This paper combines experimental and field data to examine how those who transgress rules may elicit more stringent penalties from those with the authority to punish them if they appeal to relevant norms endorsing leniency. Specifically, we test how transgressors are punished when it's their birthday: a day when social norms dictate people should be treated preferentially. We first use a scenario study to establish that individuals expect leniency on their birthday. We then show that, compared to other days, transgressors are penalized more severely when it's their birthday, both by law enforcement (using more than 134,000 arrest records for drunk driving in Washington State) and by participants with the authority to penalize transgressions in an experimental lab setting. An additional experiment provides evidence that this effect is driven by psychological reactance rather than by overcompensation for potential bias. We discuss both the theoretical and practical implications of our findings.
Prejudice and Bias;