Some Thoughts On Breaking The Rules

I don’t write much about classroom behaviour, or rather, I don’t write much explicitly about classroom behaviour. In fact, this post is more about behaviour in general, with some comments on behaviour in schools, so please don’t assume that I’m setting myself up as a behaviour guru (there are far too many of those already).

I suppose I’m more interested in why people break rules than thinking up ways to make them obey rules. This might seem like a topsy-turvy way to approach it, but then, I’m a psychologist and my brain has an annoying habit of working in a topsy-turvy and often chaotic way (as anyone who’s seen me present at a teaching event will know).

On the surface, controlling people’s behaviour seems fairly simple: produce a set of guidelines for acceptable behaviour, punish those who break the rules and (in some cases) reward those who follow them. The punishments (let’s call them sanctions because it sounds more pleasant) will prevent people from breaking the rules, so, if we execute people for committing murder, nobody will murder, right? Okay, that was perhaps a slightly extreme and somewhat silly example, but hopefully, you get my point.

And the point is that some people will still break the rules despite the sanctions – this is the bit that interests me. We can relate such behaviour to society as a whole or micro-environments such as schools or individual classrooms, but ultimately the end results are the same – some break rules, others don’t, most fall somewhere in the middle.

We can explain such behaviour in simple classical behaviourists terms. If every time you speak, I hit you with a big stick you will either a) stop speaking or b) develop a very nasty tick every time you speak (in anticipation of being hit with a big stick). Please bear in mind that this in no way implies that I believe in controlling behaviour by hitting people with big sticks – I just want to make that point perfectly clear.

We could take a more operant approach. Offering rewards for good behaviour and sanctions for bad might work better. Indeed, research has found that rewarding good behaviour can, in some cases, be more productive than punishing bad behaviour. This is all well and good, so long as rewards are used strategically and not offered on a whim. One school I worked at used a system of Positive Discipline where pupils would get stamps in their planners for good behaviour (many schools operate a similar system). However, management decreed that stamps should be awarded for simply turning up to the lesson, undermining the whole concept.

Of course, there are more sophisticated approaches to human behaviour. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that we learn by observing how others are rewarded or punished; Robert Cialdini suggests that we take cues from others, so if we are unsure of the correct behaviour, we look around and see what others are doing first (so-called Social Proof Theory). This is most apparent in the case of pluralistic ignorance, where, faced with a potential emergency, we first take our cue from those around us. Do they think it’s an emergency? If not, we won’t do anything to help (like phone the fire brigade).

Indeed, Cialdini believes others play a major role in shaping a person’s behaviour through a number of concepts including reciprocity, consistency, liking and authority.

Obedience to authority has been tested consistently since Milgram’s early and now infamous work. What we often fail to realise, however, is that obedience has also been found to be both culturally and historically influenced (Milgram’s original findings were most likely influenced by the Communist witch hunts that the US was still recovering from at the time). Also, rates of obedience fell when the experiment was transferred from the hallowed halls of Yale University to an old office block downtown – so the environment plays a role.

What is interesting about the Milgram experiments (to me anyway) are the reasons why some people disobeyed the instructions of the authority figure while the majority continued to carry out an act they found morally repugnant.

The most plausible explanation is a psychological concept known as reactance, first proposed by Jack Brehm in his 1966 book A theory of psychological reactance. Reactance theory suggests that when we feel that our freedoms are in some being infringed upon, we react with hostility – telling us not to do something compels us to do it. This might go some way to explaining why authoritarian practices are ultimately unsustainable. For example, studies have linked rigid, authoritarian parenting styles to everything from depression and obesity to drug addiction and academic underachievement.

When people are given choices (or, at least, the illusion of choice) they feel more in control of their actions. Of course, our choices will always be limited by societal norms, pressures and rules. We can see this at a micro-level where motivation levels increase in classrooms where teachers are autonomy-supportive (a building block of Ryan and Deci’s Self-determination theory) but also in less authoritarian nations with lower crime rates and higher quality of life.

The suggestion often made that punishments or sanctions work is simply inaccurate and assumes that human beings are simple stimulus-response machines, a view that was overturned in psychology decades ago. Certainly, our behaviour can be easily manipulated by those who know how to manipulate us (you never get a good deal on a used car, no matter how much you believe the salesperson), but at least we feel that we have a choice in buying the car in the first place.

Surely the answer to the behaviour problem in more multifaceted than some would have us believe. It should certainly not be guided by ideology or politics, but by a critical and balanced review of the evidence. Sanctions and rewards are useful, but also is imbuing people with a sense of autonomy and purpose, of cultivating the individual and allowing voices to be heard.


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