Newswise — We all push the boundaries and cut corners, whether it's using our cellphone while driving, jaywalking, wearing a mask under the nose or chin, or some other transgression.

These are all relatively minor behavioral violations, which, when taken individually, would not make headlines. While they may be perceived as having a negligible effect, these undesirable behaviors can cause cumulative extensive damage to society with devastating – sometimes life and death – consequences.

What enforcement policy will reduce the prevalence of such behaviors? In an imaginary world with no constraints, it might be possible to increase both the frequency of enforcement and the severity of the punishment. But in the real world, decision-makers must consider costs; more frequent enforcement, for example, requires more police and security cameras; and increasing the severity of punishment may lead to public opposition, which also has a price.

Decision-makers are often forced to choose between the two – investing in frequency of enforcement or in the severity of punishment. In many cases in Israel and around the world, policymakers opt for infrequent, severe punishment – such as the heavy penalty in Israel for not wearing a mask. This approach is consistent with classic economic theories that the severity of the punishment is the most important factor when it comes to deterrence. This approach is also supported by several studies in behavioral economics according to which, people may treat a small penalty as a legitimate price that can, and even should be paid for the benefit they gain by committing the violation.

Researchers from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Reichman University (IDC) show that the opposite is true; the most effective method is frequent mild punishments. The study, published in PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was led by Assistant Professor Kinneret Teodorescu from the Technion Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, conducted with faculty colleague Dr. Ori Plonsky, Prof. Shahar Ayal from Reichman University, and Prof. Rachel Barkan from Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Previous studies on violation of guidelines and deceit have mainly examined the impact of internal aspects of morality and norms. These studies typically focused on laboratory experiments in which participants are given the opportunity to cheat once or twice but are not given feedback on the results of their cheating and experience no external enforcement. However, this is not how things work in the real world, as decision-makers – and the public – want to reduce repeated violations that ultimately harm us all. The present study addresses the effect of external enforcement on behavior over time. It focused on a comparison between two different policies: frequent enforcement of mild punishments and infrequent severe punishment.

The study included several trials in which participants were given many opportunities to report a false result and make more money. In the first stage, the answer was not verified, and of course there was no enforcement. In the second stage, the participants were told that from now, their answers will be sampled randomly and verified, and they will be fined for each detected false answer. The fine will be deducted from the payment received for participating in the study. A policy of high enforcement frequency with small fines was implemented in one group, and for the other group, low enforcement frequency with high fines as a deterrent.

According to Prof. Teodorescu, “In all the experiments we found that a higher frequency of mild punishments decreased the rate of violation much more effectively than low frequency of severe punishment. The gap was especially large among high offenders - participants who even from the first stage, with no enforcement, tended to commit more violations. Moreover, this trend was maintained even when the participants were told in advance how much the fine was and were not told the frequency of enforcement – which simulates many real-life situations."

These findings are consistent with current theories on experience-based decision-making, theories that relate to the learning process of incentive systems over time in repetitive decisions accompanied by feedback. In such situations, the initial deterrence of a heavy punishment wears off quickly. The assumption is that when we make the decision of whether to commit a behavioral violation, we 'recall' a small number of past experiences in which we were tempted to commit a violation and the outcome of our decision in these cases. Since a small number of experiences do not typically include rare events, most of the time, the sample we rely on in our decision-making process will only include common occurrences. When enforcement is infrequent, the common occurrence is the benefit of committing the violation without being caught, which leads to the recurrence of undesirable behaviors.

To reduce the recurrence of undesirable behaviors, it is important to create a connection between the violation and the punishment, through frequent enforcement rather than rare, severe punishment. For example, it is enough that any person who does not wear a mask properly will receive frequent mild punishments – perhaps a small fine and maybe just a warning – to change their behavior.

In fact, the results of the study indicate that when the frequency of enforcement is very low (less than 10% of violations),  increasing enforcement frequency by as little as several percent points is enough to achieve a drastic reduction in violations. This change is achieved even if the punishment is proportionately smaller, maintaining the same total sum of fines given. Therefore, according to the researchers, it would be good if policymakers channel resources towards increasing the frequency of enforcement rather than towards stricter punishments. The researchers emphasize that this corroborates the findings of previous studies, which indicate that when the punishment is heavy, the frequency of enforcement tends to decrease because enforcers tend to hold back and avoid giving fines.

Prof. Teodorescu added that even if current circumstances cause us to link the findings to the issue of behavior during the pandemic, it's important to draw more general conclusions about enforcement and punishment to reduce behavioral violations.  In fact, they are relevant to any violation that is considered "minor" – texting while driving, moderate violence, etc., which can in fact lead to severe damage.

Prof. Teodorescu recommends that parents, educators, and other parties make sure to respond even if the violation is not dramatic, knowing that even a moderate response will facilitate behavioral change if it occurs frequently.

For more than a century, the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology has pioneered in science and technology education and delivered world-changing impact. Proudly a global university, the Technion has long leveraged boundary-crossing collaborations to advance breakthrough research and technologies. Now with a presence in three countries, the Technion will prepare the next generation of global innovators. Technion people, ideas and inventions make immeasurable contributions to the world, innovating in fields from cancer research and sustainable energy to quantum computing and computer science to do good around the world.

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Journal Link: PNAS, Oct 19-2021