Rules Are Made To Be Broken
As a culture, we are overwhelmingly obsessed with breaking the rules that society and the rule of law have imposed on us. All of us break rules, every day, and we collectively celebrate rule breakers with great enthusiasm. Whether it is our rebellious nature, our unending thirst to get ahead in life, or our simple disdain for authority; each of us has broken a myriad of rules in our lifetimes. The bigger question to ask is why. Why do normal, law-abiding citizens feel compelled to break the rules? Is it because we know that largely we can get away with it? Does it give us a sense of power or control over our lives? Are we simply thrill-seekers? Has culture conditioned us to value rule breaking more than rule following? Is it some combination of all of these things? Or do we just not like being told what to do?
At the outset, I will draw a distinction between simple rule breakers and those real-life wanton law breakers and criminals who refuse to obey the laws of society in order to satisfy their own greed and desire; regardless of whom they hurt or kill in the process. Rather, I am referring to the common man. I mean the average reasonable person in society who at times looks to throw off the constricting shackles of societal rules in order to further his or her own gain, to feel truly free, to rebel, or to simply satisfy some primitive urge to not be controlled.
This article will explore the societal implications on breaking rules and attempt to shed some light on why people do it—all people. As you’ll see, I break the rules too. So relax and enjoy the story. Or don’t. No rules.
Where Did All These Rules Come From?
As a general rule, there are an awful lot of rules. Unwritten rules, written rules, statutes, social contracts, ordinances, regulations, directives, orders, instructions, policy, and on and on we go. Some of them have been and continue to be absolutely necessary for an organized society; while others maybe not so much. For example, in Baltimore, it is illegal to take a lion to the movies. In Oklahoma, it is illegal to have a sleeping donkey in your bathtub after 7:00 pm, while in Arizona, State law states that donkeys can’t sleep in bathtubs at all. It is very difficult terrain to navigate, but let’s begin by exploring how we came to get all of these rules.
People almost universally recognize and accept that there is a need for moral rules. In other words, almost everyone will agree that lying, stealing, and killing are morally wrong, and have as such become almost universally accepted moral rules. Once these moral rules become universally accepted, they become societal norms, which, although they may not rise to the level of formal laws, serve as a means of social control. Individuals who seek to be part of the larger group are forced to conform their behavior to these accepted norms.
In fact, in a 1969 publication in the Harvard University Press, philosopher David Lewis explained the creation of social norms in the context of convention. Under this concept, he found that once a particular way of doing things becomes established as a rule, it continues in force because we prefer to conform to the rule given the expectation that others are going to conform. This entire line of thinking followed the work of eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume, who first explained the role of norms in the construction of social order. Hume explained that these norms served to define everything from property rights to currency, to family relationships.
In essence, we conform because we believe such behavior to be morally right, we expect others to do the same, and because we want to be accepted into the group. Following the rules satisfies our fundamental sense of morality, fairness, and inclusion. It gives us a reasonable expectation for how others will behave toward each of us, and it makes us feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.
2. Social Norms
Social norms (as mentioned above) derive from ourselves, both individually and collectively. In studying social reactions to a person’s conscious violation of social norms (called a breaching experiment), both sociology and psychology researchers base such studies on the assumption that all of us as individuals construct rules for social interaction, that we do it every day, and that we are often unaware of doing so. These behavioral norms then become unwritten but universally accepted rules.
Sociologist Erving Goffman studied this area and published two works on the topic. Based on his experiments and research, he concluded that the most basic rule in all social interactions is for an individual to fit in. Social norms of the group then define acceptable behavior wherein compliance is rewarded by acceptance and there are penalties for noncompliance, such as a lack of trust or acceptance.
It would seem that this need for acceptance is so strong that most of the time it trumps all the other reasons we have for breaking the rules. Our need to fit in is most of the time more important to us than our need to feel autonomous.
From the earliest days or civilization, religion has been used as a powerful form of social control. If you accept the common definition that social control refers generally to societal and political mechanisms or processes that regulate individual and group behavior in an attempt to gain conformity and compliance to the rules of a given society or group; there is no question that religion, in all of its forms, has played a central role in the shaping of what society considers appropriate behavior. What are the Ten Commandments, if not one of the earliest examples of written rules?
Your personal religious beliefs notwithstanding, the Ten Commandments aptly illustrate the point that there are consequences to the choices each of us make regarding our behavior. If you consider a small fine for spitting on the sidewalk to be on one end of the spectrum, then the prospect of spending all of eternity in a fiery hell for violation of one of the Commandments would certainly be on the other end.
In addition, The Golden Rule has its roots in every known religion beginning in ancient civilizations and continuing to present day. It is more of a maxim holding that you should treat others as you want to be treated; and it may truly be the first rule of the book. Also called the ethic of reciprocity, the rule serves as an ethical code for defining conduct in terms of right or wrong. In particular, Christianity claims this rule as its own and attributes it to Jesus (“Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets.” Matthew 7:12). Similar verses can be found in the Qur’an and the Torah, as well as every other religious and philosophical teaching.
Religion is a powerful form of social control, both in terms of morality and in imposing the idea of punishment or retribution. Many religions teach that if you behave well, you will be rewarded in the afterlife; but if you do not, you will be punished for all of eternity. For people who possess a deep faith, this concept can be far more persuasive and powerful than any man-made law.
The law is the most powerful form of social control, at least in terms of modern society. In its simplest terms, the rule of law is simply a prescribed set of sanctions (or punishments) for violations of certain rules. Since these rules have been enacted through legislation by officials who were elected by the populace, the laws bear the legitimacy of speaking for the majority of society. The laws are written down so every citizen can understand them. The reach of statutory law extends from the imposition of financial penalties, to deprivation of liberty, to possibly even the death of a citizen at the hands of his or her government.
In the United States, the law is derived from five sources: constitutional law, statutory law, treaties, administrative regulations, and the common law (which includes case law precedent). Without trailing off into a civics lesson, the takeaway is that the federal government can and does enact statutes and regulations prescribing or prohibiting certain behavior in certain situations. So too can each of the fifty States, who enact laws and regulations, as well as delegating lawmaking powers to thousands of State agencies and local counties, cities, townships, and districts.
The concept is very simple: break the law and you are punished. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time (or something like that; I’m too young to know for sure). But I do know that if the potential punishment outweighs the possible benefit, a law has the desired deterrent effect and will discourage the prescribed behavior. Otherwise, go directly to jail.
Rule Breaking in Popular Culture
It seems ironic that the very rules that we ourselves created to govern the way we choose to live our lives and to define our relationships with others have now become unduly burdensome and oppressive; or at least some of them have—at least some of the time. So why do these rules that so embodied our core moral, ethical, and spiritual beliefs now seem to hold us back? To what extent has modern society now conditioned us to value breaking rules? Is it true that the times, they are a changin’?
Modern society and pop culture is replete with historical examples of us condoning and even lauding rule breakers. From a hip-gyrating rock and roller from Memphis who broke the conventions of music and sexuality, to a leather-clad James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, to the Beatnik mantra to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” our society has oft celebrated these rule breakers and perhaps we all think we see a little bit of ourselves in these rule-breaking pioneers.
Elvis Presley was a revolutionary. His music broke down racial barriers, challenged sexual inhibitions, and spawned a new culture of youth. But this was not without cost. His provocative dancing and fast music challenged the values that America, more-specifically white America, believed strongly in. He almost single-handedly made African American music accessible to white people and he created a culture of young men and women who for the first time felt free to express themselves sexually. I may have overstated his historical importance slightly; but my mother was a teenager when Elvis exploded onto the scene and she’s going to read this article; so I’m not about to say one bad word about The King.
Many people did, however. Critics called him vulgar and blamed him for corrupting our youth. Remember too that television was just starting to thrive, so people were able to witness Elvis is all of his inflammatory glory for free. The more parents and the older generation condemned him, the more popular Elvis became. Girls wanted him and boys wanted to be him. All the while, parents and religious leaders blamed him for juvenile delinquency and sexual promiscuity.
As Elvis’s popularity soared, our culture eventually began to change with him. A new generation of young people began to question racial and sexual barriers, in many ways paving the way for the civil rights movement to follow. In any case, he created a new genre of music, known forever more as rock and roll.
James Dean also challenged the older generation’s idea of how we should look, dress, and act; although in his case, that applied only to his movie persona. In Rebel Without a Cause, Dean portrayed a confused, middle-class teenager who rebelled against his parents and was disrespectful toward authority. He smoked cigarettes, drank, fought, and raced cars. He was the opposite of how a teenager was expected to behave in that era, and the movie challenged conventions regarding parenting, gender roles, and teenage behavior. In many ways, it sparked the teenage rebellion of the time that later paved the way for the counterculture rebellion of the sixties.
These cultural rule breakers soon morphed into the full-blown counter-culture of the early 1960s and early 1970s as the gap between generations became more apparent. Music, sex, recreational drug use, and social and political activism, especially among college students, sparked the movement as young people openly rejected the cultural standards held by their parents. The movement gained momentum with the Civil Rights Movement and exploded with U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam War. In many ways, the movement was defined by violent confrontations between protestors and police attempting to enforce the status quo during a time when law and society were changing rapidly.
This counter-culture eventually fizzled out as most of the political goals of the movement (racial and gender equality, civil rights, and the end of the war in Viet Nam) were significantly accomplished and mainstream society absorbed many of the new ideals that had first sparked the movement.
The counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s was followed by long-haired heavy metal bands of the 1980s who took rule breaking to new levels with drinking, drugs, and outrageous behavior. Grunge bands of the 1990s followed as lines continued to blur between mainstream culture and counter-culture.
What was once a counterculture has become the new popular culture, as bands pack arenas and stadiums for concerts and movie stars sell millions of tickets; all so we can watch our new heroes flout convention and rules. We identify with them. We admire them. We want to be them—free of societal rules and conventions. They live largely free of repercussions for their brazen behavior; though jail time is often part of the equation and many flames burn out too soon due to an overindulgence of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But none of that stops our admiration; nor will it ever.
Rooting For the Bad Guy
One of my favorite shows ever was Breaking Bad. Until pretty close to the bitter end, I found myself still rooting for Walter White. Now, granted Walter started out with the excellent motivation of providing for his family; but let’s not forget for a minute that he very quickly became a drug dealer and soon thereafter a murderer. Yet I still somehow found myself rooting for him. Spending the past fourteen years of my professional career prosecuting murderers and drug dealers and seeing first-hand the damage and destruction they cause to so many lives, I still found myself rooting for Walter. I wasn’t rooting for the DEA, or even the hard-working local law enforcement agents. I wanted the bad guy to get away despite breaking rules, laws, and even (for some the most important rules) many of the Ten Commandments. The big question is why?
From a psychological perspective, let’s assume that we define “bad guy” as someone who breaks the rules or conventions of society. In very general terms, we are conditioned to cheer for the hero and boo for the villain. This distinction (hero versus villain) is one we make based on observing a person’s specific behavior in a given situation, and typically involves a person who is a stranger to us. For example, if you were to see someone shoot another person, you would most likely immediately think the shooter was a bad guy, or an evil person. This snap judgment is based on a phenomenon known in social psychology as the fundamental attribution error.
Fundamental attribution error refers to a person’s tendency to place emphasis on internal characteristics to explain a person’s behavior in a given situation rather than considering external factors. In other words, we look only at the act itself and not the reasons for it or the surrounding circumstances. The difference between this scenario and the villains we root for in movies and television is that we come to know more about these so-called villains and the external factors that contribute to their behavior. We identify with these people; often noticing the same flaws in them that we see in ourselves, and we begin to re-assess our judgment of them.
With situational knowledge regarding a person’s behavior, we may begin to re-assess our initial perception of that behavior. By sharing that person’s perspective we begin to identify with him or her. Even if we conclude that such a person is not a good person, we feel empathy toward him and consider the event from his perspective, thus likely changing our initial assessment of the person as bad and possibly even revealing some redeeming qualities in the person.
Social psychologist Jonathan Cohen explored this concept of identification in the context of mass communication in terms of audience identification with a media character. He posits that audience members can experience events more fully by taking on a character’s identity and vicariously experiencing those events from within that identity. Within the entertainment industry, this audience involvement is considered to be crucial, and those working in the industry will go to great lengths to make audience members identify with their characters and vicariously experience events through them. This is the essence of entertainment; where the audience members lose themselves by becoming emotionally engaged with a character, thereby escaping their own dull lives and becoming part of the action. This is purposely accomplished through camera angles, point of view, and narration. It keeps people tuning in and/or buying tickets. Nevertheless, the industry is not manipulating people into rooting for villains but rather playing to psychological phenomenon we all experience in real life. Television and movies are, after all, only a reflection of society.
Another psychological phenomenon at play is called the mere exposure effect. According to this theory, the more often you are exposed to a certain stimuli, the more you like it. This necessarily includes our perceptions of other people, and may make us see someone as favorable, even after our initial impression of them as a villain.
To a lesser extent, we all have a basic human tendency to associate beauty with something good. Therefore, a physically attractive villain, even one whom we know to be a bad person, will be assumed to possess at least some positive qualities. Think about Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones. Would anyone be rooting for him if he was ugly?
No discussion on psychological factors would be complete without reference to Sigmund Freud. Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Innate Aggressiveness held that we all have sexual and aggressive drives motivated by our id; the part of our personality that acts according to the "pleasure principle"—the force that seeks immediate gratification. In a 2012 article, Rooting for the Bad Guy: Psychological Perspectives, Studies in Popular Culture, Volume34.2, Spring 2012, by Richard Keen, Monica L. McCoy, and Elizabeth Powell, the authors examine this theory (as well as some of the previously mentioned theories) in light of rooting for the bad guy. They theorize that we often have no appropriate outlet to satisfy our sexual and aggressive drives; and that movies, television, and books may serve as an outlet for these tendencies by allowing us to vicariously experience sexual and aggressive behavior. This, they write, explains why some of us may root for aggressive characters or root for bad guys that have aggressive tendencies.
We sometimes root for real-life bad guys for exactly the same reasons; although admittedly this should and does lean more toward those people who break convention or challenge authority than those who exhibit truly criminal behavior. But think about John Dillinger, John Gotti, or even O.J. Simpson. Each of these was a very bad guy who some of us may have still rooted for. Now we have an understanding as to why.
Who Is/Was Your Favorite Villain?
What follows is by no means a complete list. Vote for your favorite villain or submit your own in Comments.
Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign
The signs are everywhere. The rules are everywhere. As mentioned above, musicians were often at the forefront of movements against following the rules of mainstream society. This thought process was captured in 1970 by the Canadian rock group Five Man Electrical Band, who aptly sang about signs prohibiting trespassers and long-haired freaky people. It seems now that there are signs everywhere telling us what we can’t do. No parking. No loitering. No smoking. And just as many signs as there are posted everywhere, there are an equal number of people ready, willing, and able to break those rules.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote in his Behavioral Theory that feelings associated with behavior are a result of conditioning. This is most prevalent in childhood development where children who are rewarded for positive behaviors are likely to willingly repeat those behaviors and be happy in doing so. However, children will also choose certain behaviors in order to avoid a repeat of negative reinforcement. They may behave appropriately, but will feel that their freedoms are being suppressed. This is, in essence, the crux of the matter. All of us are free to behave however we choose, as long as we are willing to accept the consequences of our actions.
When faced with rules we all encounter every day telling us what to do; laws, written instructions (or posted signs), or social guidelines, we each choose our behavior and stand willing to accept the consequences. We may choose to follow the rules, however much they make us feel stifled or oppressed; or we may choose to break the rules, feeling a sense of freedom and autonomy but forced to face the consequences of our choices. But how do we decide which signs to follow and when?
Why Do We Break the Rules?
I am certain that there are dozens of theories as to why people break rules; much as criminal justice scholars have theories as to the reasons for delinquency and criminality. Without delving into a dissertation on social science theories for disobedience, a criminal subculture, or crimes committed out of economic need, I will offer a few hypotheses for why seemingly average, ordinary people break the rules. I base these on psychological factors, life experience, and common sense. I don’t presume this to be an exhaustive list, nor am I well-schooled in psychology, but what follows are a few explanations as to why we all sometimes break the rules.
1. It makes us feel powerful.
A 2011 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded that when people do not respect the basic rules of social behavior, they lead others to believe that they have power. Oddly, the study also found that people who acted rudely were perceived to have more power as well. If rule breakers are seen to be more in control and more powerful, it follows then that breaking the rules makes us each feel more powerful and more in control.
By taking the position that you can decide for yourself which rules to follow and which to ignore, you feel more in control of your environment and your life. This feeds your sense of self importance and you may even decide that, because of your status, certain rules don’t apply to you.
2. Being bad feels pretty good.
Being bad makes us feel like Elvis and James Dean. Come on, you want to be cool, don’t you? As discussed earlier, society loves a rebel; with or without a cause. We have been conditioned to root for the villain, embrace the bad boy, and applaud those who rebel against the constraints of orderly society. We all have a little bad boy in us and we want and need to flex it sometimes. Being bad feels pretty good, huh?
The Breakfast Club, Universal Studios (1985)
3. We do it for the thrill of it.
Many of us are thrill seekers; adrenaline junkies who need the rush of action to feel truly alive. We ride roller coasters, drive fast cars or motorcycles, participate in extreme or action sports, get into fights, or do a variety of other things to satisfy our thirst for action. Some go into professions like the military or law enforcement. The thrill sensation is like a drug and we need a constant fix. Breaking rules can satisfy that sensation to some degree. Obviously, the bigger the rule, the bigger the rush that comes with breaking it. Remember Tom Sizemore’s character Michael Cheritto in Heat? His answer to doing one more dangerous job was “Well ya know, for me, the action is the juice.” Exactly.
If not actually thrilling, breaking rules is at least fun. When my ten-year old asked me what I was writing and I shared this story with him, he enthusiastically piped in, “I break rules because it’s fun!” That’s a great point and one that seemed worthy of inclusion in this article. Thanks for the input, buddy. Now go to your room for breaking the rules.
4. There are few or no repercussions.
If you park in a spot designated as a “No Parking - Tow Away Zone”, you do so with the knowledge that there is a real and likely chance that your decision will result in your car being towed. On the other hand, diving into a pool with no lifeguard and a “No Diving” sign posted will likely have no repercussions (with the possible exception of breaking your neck). Even if there was a lifeguard on duty, you may only be forced to leave the pool area for diving, running, or horseplay; but those rules have more to do with property owners attempting to avoid liability for injuries suffered by customers than with truly trying to control behavior.
It is axiomatic that the greater the penalty for violation, the less likely a person will be to break the rule. It’s really a simple matter of risk versus reward. If the reward is great or the risk is minimal, a person is far more likely to ignore the rule.
5. We don't like being told what to do.
Reactance Theory, first proposed by psychologist Jack Brehm several decades ago, holds that individuals greatly value individual behavioral freedoms, both as a means of self-identity and ultimately, their very survival. The theory posits that when people are faced with events that threaten these behavioral freedoms, the threat creates a motivational arousal state called psychological reactance which motivates the person to restore the threatened freedom. In other words, rules which threaten an individual’s behavioral freedom can provoke the opposite reaction and cause the person to break the rules. The greater the perceived threat, or the more important the freedom, the greater the level of reactance will be.
Interestingly, this theory has also formed the basis for what many call “reverse psychology”—the idea that telling someone not to do something would make it more appealing and thus motivate that person to do the prohibited act. I don’t believe reverse psychology works, and I will discuss other psychological theories of rule breaking below, but absolutely do not continue reading. Stop reading this article right now.
6. Cognitive dissonance and rationalization.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the stress an individual feels when he or she holds two contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. This inconsistency causes psychological discomfort and an individual will seek to reduce the dissonance either by changing beliefs or, more likely, by changing behavior.
A main assumption of cognitive dissonance theory is that people seek consistency between their expectations and their reality. While it seems straightforward to think that an individual could more easily change his or her beliefs to meet expectations, when it comes to matters of personal ability or competence, recent studies have shown that a person is far more likely to change his or her behavior to meet expectations than to adjust a previously-held belief in his or her own ability.
In other words, the dissonance caused by a person’s failure to meet expectations may cause such a person to alter his or her belief regarding certain rules. Simply stated, if someone feels that they should be more rich, powerful, or successful than they are; they are more likely to break rules in an attempt to meet those expectations than to simply adjust their expectations for success.
Once an individual has made the decision to break rules in order to resolve the dissonance, the psychological defense mechanism of rationalization may occur to justify or explain in the person’s mind that the behavior was logical, just, or appropriate. This rationalization will serve to protect an individual’s self-esteem by attributing success to intelligence and skill while attributing failure to outside forces beyond their control.
As an unrelated side note, I explained this section so well because of my intelligence and writing ability. If you didn’t understand it, it is only because you lack the logic and reasoning to understand. Like that.
7. Some people are just evil.
Psychopaths and sociopaths are characterized by a disregard for the rights of others, including society in general. While such people can be wonderfully charming and can be, and often are, very successful; they are largely able to accomplish their goals due to a total disregard of social structures, including laws, rules, and social contracts. These people will lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead; justified in their minds by an inflated sense of self-worth and a sense of entitlement. For them, they lack remorse, guilt, or empathy so they not only have a lack of concern but a genuine disdain for anyone or anything that interferes with their goals. They take no responsibility for their actions and attempt to manipulate others for their own gain. Laws or rules have little or no effect on limiting such people unless those laws are used to put them in prison for criminal activity.
None of us is Elvis; but we all have a little of The King in our psyche. Everyone breaks rules, and most of us root for the bad guy; at least some of the time. There are numerous psychological factors at play that can explain this, but when it comes right down to it, in the words of a child: breaking rules is fun. We live in a world governed by rules, laws, regulations, and social contracts. These are the very rules we have created in order to allow each of us to enjoy our personal freedoms, but they can at times weigh us down and feel oppressive. From time to time, we need to break free from the constriction of all these rules and feel alive. We all want to be James Dean sometimes, or to seem powerful, or to feel like we have absolute freedom of choice. Whatever the reason, good people break rules. It doesn’t make them bad people; it just makes them human. Everybody breaks the rules sometimes. Just look.
Are you a rule breaker or a rule follower?
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