Why Do We Follow Some Rules and Break Others?


Oct 31, 2019


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A popular saying goes, “Rules are meant to be broken.” But … why?

A Quora user writes, “rules are made to be broken because if everyone travels within the bounds of given rules, no horizons will ever be expanded. We, as a society, have the task of constantly challenging the rules and making sure we step outside of them when we mean no harm and act in the advantage of our fellow man. That doesn’t mean we should break the rules for the mere goal of breaking them. We should only break rules to better society.”

But often, that’s not the case. We break the same rules that are created for the betterment of society. The same rules that are created for our safety and well-being. We don’t wear seatbelts while driving. We spit and litter in public places. We defile public property and jump queues. We eat and use phones in places we’re not supposed to — the list of rules we break on a daily basis is endless.

If rules are meant to organize our lives, make things uniform and easier to control, why do we end up breaking them? Research offers various reasons.

For starters, people break rules because it is rewarding, in two ways. A cheater’s high comes first. Often, cheaters and rule-breakers don’t feel guilty and remorseful. Rather, researchers from the University of Washington, Harvard University and other institutions found, rule-breakers feel smarter and more capable along with being in an unexpectedly good mood after breaking a rule. The second reward, they found, was that in breaking a rule, rule-breakers feel a sense of freedom. “In this freer mindset we may make random, remote associations that aren’t apparent when we’re rule-bound,” reports Jena Pincott Psychology Today.

For instance, children parented in a very strict, authoritarian manner may defy the law because “parental control is too strict for comfort. What they can’t/couldn’t do at home finds free expression once they are outside and with friends,” theorizes Geeta Padmanaban in an article on rule-breaking in The Hindu. Humans like to defy authority and are likely to ask who are [the authority figures] to tell us when asked to do stuff, she suggests.  

Rule-breaking also has less to do with people’s characters, and more the situations people find themselves in. “Often, not a lot of conscious awareness goes into when or to what extent we push ethical boundaries. We might break the rules under some conditions and in some mindsets, but not in others. Morality is so malleable that just thinking about breaking a rule can change the way we behave,” Pincott writes.

Researchers have also tried to assess whether the tendency to break rules is in any way associated with people’s IQs. An associate professor from Harvard University, Francesca Gino, and a behavioral economist at Duke University and MIT, Dan Ariely, found that, in fact, breaking a rule wasn’t also as much about people’s intelligence, as much as it was about their level of creativity. Those who cheated scored higher in divergent thinking than those who didn’t. And those who cheated more were more creative than those who cheated less. From another experiment they conducted by posing ethical dilemmas to employees in an advertising firm, the research duo found workers who had more creative jobs — for instance, the copywriters and designers — were more likely to break rules than those with less-creative jobs, like the accountants.

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“The ability of people to behave dishonestly might be bounded by their ability to cheat and at the same time feel they are moral individuals,” Gino said to The Harvard Crimson. The duo also explained that creativity allows the retelling of stories of rule-breaking to justify why it’s morally possible. Gino added, “Creativity and criminality are mutually reinforcing. The more creative you are, the more you break the rules, and the more rules you break, the more creative you get.”

Another reason to break rules comes from the need to feel or be seen as powerful. The more people care about power and winning, or feel threatened by others on their way to the top, a 2011 study found, “the faster their values fall to the wayside.” This research also found that rule-breaking is associated with perceptions of power. In an experiment, researchers had people come to the lab to interact with a rule-follower and a rule-breaker. The rule-follower was polite and acted normally; the rule-breaker arrived late, threw down his bag on a table and put up his feet. On seeing this, people thought the rule-breaker had more power and was more likely to “get others to do what he wants.”

“Norm violators are perceived as having the capacity to act as they please,” the researchers said in a statement.

A culture or organization lays down rules to promote uniformity and inclusivity. But people break rules for the sake of supporting their own tribe, too — even if the rule-breaking comes at the expense of society as a whole. If a group cheats on tests, or lies about finishing a project, then the individual is likely to support them in their lie or cover it up at the least.

And lastly, the decision to break a rule also depends on how complex the rule is. An article in the Harvard Business Review states that rules that are complex are harder to follow. “Because organizations rely on routines for following rules, complex rules would require complex routines, which would be harder to execute reliably. As expected, rule complexity increases noncompliance,” the authors write.

All in all, rules are made for a reason, created to suit a specific situation — which means that not all of them will apply every time, in every scenario, and thus, not all of them are meant to be followed. You follow some, you break some, knowingly or unknowingly, but it is important to be aware that rule-breaking leads to more rule-breaking, according to Gino’s research. Therefore, the reason for rule-breaking becomes more critical — is it because you want to feel powerful, or want to be creative? Or because you simply desire a sense of freedom? When you break a rule, you’re questioning a certain mindset. Therefore, breaking a rule in itself is not the last step — looking beyond and examining the need to adapt or create new rules typically follows. Updating an old rule will only help the rule-breaker — and everyone else.


Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.


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