Dan Ariely, a highly regarded behavioral economist, was asked the following question by one of his readers:
My partner and I live in a pretty 250-townhouse condo development, but we have a problem with people who don’t clean up after their dogs… Our condo fees pay someone big bucks to clean up after the dogs, and there’s a $50 fine when owners fail to clean up after their dogs. But you have to know who the dog owner is, catch him in the act, and report him to the condo corporation. This policy is not working. What can we do?
Ariely’s answer is simple, but highly instructive for many aspects of human behavior:
A great deal of research shows that what people do is less a function of what’s legal than of what they find socially acceptable—social norms. If dog owners see a lot of droppings around the condo area, they will find it perfectly acceptable to continue in this tradition, but they would feel guilty leaving doggy souvenirs behind if the grounds were pristine. Research on social norms tells us that violators are not only acting selfishly but are also making it more likely that others will follow their example. This means that you should work extra hard to establish a better standard of conduct—because once the social norm is set to clean up after the dogs, the good behavior will maintain itself.
Should I make the extra effort to daven with a minyan during the week, or should I just daven at home? What kinds of television shows will I allow my children – and, for that matter, myself – to watch? And what kinds of leisure activities are appropriate for Shabbat afternoon?
Although Halacha (Jewish law) should technically be the sole arbiter of these questions, reality is far more complex. As Ariely notes, people’s actions are “less a function of what’s legal than of what they find socially acceptable.” It is inevitable that the answers our friends and neighbors provide to these questions will significantly influence our decisions. Although we may be intellectually aware of the Halacha’s standard, that standard is easy to ignore if it is not upheld, in practice, by the rest of the community.
When Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his death bed, his disciples came to visit him and ask for his blessing. Rabbi Yochanan chose this powerful moment to remind his students of the power of social norms:
He said to them: May it be [God’s] will that the fear of heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood. His disciples said to him: Is that all? He said to them: If only [you can attain this]! You can see [how important this is], for when a man wants to commit a transgression, he says, I hope no man will see me. (Berachot 28b)
It’s disheartening to realize that being “socially acceptable” is the underlying motivator for so many of our decisions. But once we are honest with ourselves as to our true motivations, we can use this powerful insight to our advantage. Imagine if we could create social norms in our community, whereby people felt compelled to strengthen their own Torah observance because “everyone else is doing it.” A man can dream, can’t he?