Social disapproval leads to longer lasting behaviour change than cash fines

If you want to influence people’s behaviour by hitting them where it hurts, the wallet seems like a great place to aim. Say a local authority began fining litter-bugs on the spot, you can bet the streets would soon be cleaner. But there’s a downside. People begin to see the behaviour in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. They stop littering not because it’s wrong, but because it makes financial sense. This approach can also encourage would-be litterers to perceive other people’s tidy behaviour as a financial rather than a moral choice. None of this matters too much until the litter wardens go home. Absent the financial threat, litterers are quick to start dumping their junk again.

It’s not realistic to have a constant method of enforcement in place. So what approach will be more effective than the time-limited influence of fines? A new study by Rob Nelissen and Laetitia Mulder suggests that social disapproval is more effective than financial sanctions because the effects linger on even after the threat of disapproval is lifted.

The researchers invited 84 participants to sit alone at computer cubicles, to play several rounds of a public goods game in groups of four. Players started with 4 Euros each, and every round they chose how much to place into a group kitty. At the end of each round the group stash was multiplied 1.5 times and shared among the four players. The anti-social temptation is to free-load, to enjoy the proceeds from the group payout without contributing a fair share.

One third of the groups played under threat of financial sanction. Each round, these participants saw the contributions of the other players and could choose to fine others one Euro. Players were also told about any fines they’d received. Another third of the groups played under threat of social disapproval. Each round participants could choose to direct their disapproval at other players. They also learned how many players had frowned on their tactics. There was also a control group with no sanction system in place.

For the first seven rounds, both financial threats and social disapproval threats increased fair play (compared with control condition), but the effect of fines was greater. Crucially, at the seventh round, the players in the sanction conditions were told there was a computer malfunction and that the final three rounds would be played without any fining or disapproval system in place. The key test was how they’d behave once the threat of sanction was lifted.

With the sanctions gone, the cooperative play of participants in the financial condition fell away quickly, more so than in the social disapproval condition. Indeed, by the tenth and final round, players in the financial condition played the same selfish style as control condition players. In contrast, the players in the social disapproval condition continued to show signs of increased fair play.

“Clearly this has important implications for public policy,” Nelissen and Mulder concluded. “Our results suggest that successful norm induction requires public communication of social (dis)approval, not only because it increases the salience and thus the effectiveness of norms in guiding behaviour, but also because it makes them stick even if people are not consistently punished for their violations.”


Nelissen, R., and Mulder, L. (2013). What makes a sanction “stick”? The effects of financial and social sanctions on norm compliance. Social Influence, 8 (1), 70-80 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2012.729493

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “Social disapproval leads to longer lasting behaviour change than cash fines”

  1. Similar to stuff on internal and external motivation in sport and other fields. Remove external rewards and motivations drop

  2. I could not agree more. In America, we condone uncivil public behavior because we fear being shot if we express dissapproval. We are in an epidemic of uncivility as a result.

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