Doesn't everybody jaywalk? On codified rules that are seldom followed and selectively punished

Cognition 231 (C):105323 (2023)
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Rules are meant to apply equally to all within their jurisdiction. However, some rules are frequently broken without consequence for most. These rules are only occasionally enforced, often at the discretion of a third-party observer. We propose that these rules—whose violations are frequent, and enforcement is rare—constitute a unique subclass of explicitly codified rules, which we call ‘phantom rules’ (e.g., proscribing jaywalking). Their apparent punishability is ambiguous and particularly susceptible to third-party motives. Across six experiments, (N = 1440) we validated the existence of phantom rules and found evidence for their motivated enforcement. First, people played a modified Dictator Game with a novel frequently broken and rarely enforced rule (i.e., a phantom rule). People enforced this rule more often when the “dictator” was selfish (vs. fair) even though the rule only proscribed fractional offers (not selfishness). Then we turned to third person judgments of the U.S. legal system. We found these violations are recognizable to participants as both illegal and commonplace (Experiment 2), differentiable from violations of prototypical laws (Experiments 3) and enforced in a motivated way (Experiments 4a and 4b). Phantom rule violations (but not prototypical legal violations) are seen as more justifiably punished when the rule violator has also violated a social norm (vs. rule violation alone)—unless the motivation to punish has been satiated (Experiment 5). Phantom rules are frequently broken, codified rules. Consequently, their apparent punishability is ambiguous, and their enforcement is particularly susceptible to third party motives.

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