Forbidden fruit

The psychology of prohibition

by Chloe Jennings | 3/1/17 2:15am

If you’ve ever been in a position of power, you know that getting people to follow the rules is a complicated and often elusive pursuit. On one hand, rules are necessary to keep people in line. On the other hand, rules can backfire. Too many rules might cause people to feel repressed and rebel; furthermore, strictly forbidding something seems to only make people want it more. So, what’s the deal? Do we need more rules or fewer? Should we take the Prohibition era of the 1920s as a warning against the threat of excessively tight control, or should we tighten the reigns to get people to comply?

A key factor for one’s motivation to break a rule is the potential consequences of breaking it.

Judith White, a Tuck School of Business professor and social psychologist, discussed the importance of enforceability.

White used the example of highway speeding. Everyone speeds on the highway, because you get there faster and you’re very unlikely to get caught (unless, of course, the speeding is egregious, or you happen to have the misfortune of passing a cop who hasn’t had his donut yet).

“People make rational decisions about whether to break a rule or not,” White said.

Rules can also be less effective if people feel that they have no say in the matter, according to psychological and brain sciences professor Thalia Wheatley.

“If you feel like your personal freedom has been threatened, then you react against that, and it can have a counterproductive effect,” Wheatley said. “If people feel that their choices, their freedoms, have been limited, it can backfire.”

The notion of the “forbidden fruit” is a legitimate psychological phenomenon, according to Wheatley.

“Anything that’s forbidden becomes more enticing,” Wheatley said. “If you want people to avoid something, you want them to believe that they themselves are choosing to avoid it.”

This takes us to the next step — getting people to actually follow the rules. Social psychologists emphasize a number of factors that might affect compliance with rules, including culture, the relationship between the rule-maker and rule-follower and perceived input within the rule-making process, to name a few. White said that the key to a successful “prohibition” or other type of rule is to make people feel as though the rule-making process was fair.

“If people felt that the authority was just, and that they had made the decision in a fair way, and that they understood the reasons for it, then a prohibition of some sort might work,” White said.

Wheatley further stated that getting people to follow rules is an art.

“You have to make people feel like, ‘it’s up to you if you want to follow the rules,’” Wheatley said. “We’d like you to follow these rules, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not you agree with those rules.”

Like any artful process, there are different ways of going about effective rule-making.

“There are lots of ways to make people believe that they have a choice,” Wheatley said.

For example, Wheatley suggested that a rule-maker could make people feel as though their peers are all following the rule. Another strategy is to engage in a dialogue, thereby making people feel that they have a say.

Ultimately, it seems that giving people a sense of input in the decision-making process is the key ingredient to successful rule-making.

“Most of the time, people have to feel that their needs and their wishes were taken into account,” White said. “They want to feel like they’re being heard.”

So, the next time you’re trying to plan a group project, you should probably ask your partners what they think about it first.