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Rice Business Wisdom

A Spoonful Of Sugar

by Rice Business Wisdom. Based on research by Marlon Mooijman.

Why adding threats to your rules can backfire

It’s one of our first human experiences: the smell of something sweet in the air followed by the overwhelming desire to gobble it. Imagine now that you’re six years old, and your dad is taking warm chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. Not one nibble before dinner, he says, otherwise you’ll lose your appetite. Then, before dashing out for a meeting, he gives a warning: “If even one cookie is missing, no TV for a week.”

What will you do? Dutifully wait? Or grab a cookie regardless of the threats?

Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and colleagues Wilco W. van Dijk and Eric van Dijk of Leiden University along with Naomi Ellemers of Utrecht University studied 883 people to understand the links between deterrence, threats and rule following. In layman’s terms, they wanted to see how policies and punishments affected the choice to steal cookies. To reach their conclusions, they conducted a series of games in which participants reported or hid taxable income depending on whether they were threatened with fines, fined with an explanation, or fined with no explanation.

With adults as with children, the researchers found, threats and punishments often backfire. This is because they signal distrust by the authorities of the very people they're supposed to control. Often, the response to that distrust is rebellion. The more perceived distrust people feel, the less likely they are to follow the rules. 

So if your dad simply tells you to lay off the cookies – that is, deterrence but no justification – you won’t assume he distrusts you. If, on the other hand, he says, “Don’t eat those cookies before dinner because you’ll spoil your appetite” – offering justification – or “If one cookie’s missing, no TV for a week,” you’re inclined to think he doesn’t trust you. Human nature being what it is, that feeling may send you straight to the cookie sheet as soon as he turns his back.

The perception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your dad doesn’t have faith in you, who cares about disappointing him?  

In general, the researchers discovered, justifications and threats of punishment leave a bad taste. Instead, we respond better to rules with no justification.

At the same time, the authority who is making the rules is important. What happens when an older sister or babysitter lays down the law? Authorities who want subordinates or constituents to follow their rules, Mooijman and his colleagues found, need to be seen as legitimate: that is, possessing the right to govern and to have others comply with their rules. 

In our family scenario, this might mean that once your mother gets involved, the fun and games are over. Because you believe she’s legit, you’re more likely to follow her rules. Your older sister might have rank because she is older, but she’s not a parent, and you know she’s likely to sneak a cookie or two along with you. 

Even so, you might be more prone to listen to her than to the babysitter. Your parents don’t know that the babysitter spends most of her time on the phone with her boyfriend while watching reality TV and periodically raiding the fridge. You have little respect for her; as an authority, she is illegitimate. If she instructs you not to eat cookies, they’re as good as gone.

Our first contacts with authority, legitimacy and deterrence usually occur at home. But the same principles apply in adult organizations, from education and penal correctional systems to finance, judicial and legislative bodies to the corporate world. Regardless of industry, if you want subordinates’ to keep their hands out of the cookie jar, don’t try to justify your rules. Just tell them what not to do.

Emphasize, though, that these rules are spelled out for wrongdoers, not the conscientious individuals who might hear them as well. Finally, sprinkle a little sugar on top. For best results, always sweeten new rules and procedures with assurances of trust.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department of organization behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Mooijman, M., van Dijk, W., van Dijk, E. & Ellemers, N. (2016).  On Sanction-Goal Justifications:  How and Why Deterrence Justifications Undermine Rule ComplianceJournal of Personality and Social Psychology,112(4),577-588.

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