Do you stick to the rules? Is that even your own conscious decision, or are you unknowingly influenced by your colleagues?

Social psychologists publish report on social norms and observance of regulations within organisations

While every workplace has its own set of rules, it's the employees that ultimately determine how they are applied in practice. To what extent do these prevailing social norms determine whether the members of an organisation comply with the rules or not? To what extent are people aware of this influence? Félice van Nunspeet and Naomi Ellemers, social psychologists at Utrecht University, explored this question as part of a recent study. Their findings were published on 28 October in the report entitled Alarm bells going off in the brain? Van Nunspeet: 'We obviously examined the extent to which people claim to value compliance. However, we also measured their brain activity using EEG to determine how people actually think when they're either obeying or breaking the rules.'

Let's say you work for an organisation that handles citizens' personal data. That data obviously has to be handled with the greatest of care. Now imagine you want to work on some documents containing personal data during your train ride home. Still, you know full well: your employer doesn't want you to take those kinds of documents home with you. A colleague notices you're feeling conflcted, and says: 'Don't worry, just take them with you. No one will ever know.'

alarm op brein

That's how we do things around here

In the above example, it seems to be commonly accepted that workplace compliance isn't all that important. As a part of their experiment, Van Nunspeet and Ellemers compared this 'relaxed' social norm with a stricter one that does prioritise compliance. The social psychologists assigned half their participants to an environment with relaxed standards, while the other half were exposed to stricter standards.

Mental pats on the back

The participants were assigned a demanding task that involved making a large number of decisions within a short timeframe and required strict compliance with the rules. The researchers assessed whether those working under stringent rules were more likely to have 'alarm bells go off' in their brains if they broke the rules. Analysis of their brain activity revealed that this was not the case. Van Nunspeet: 'We did observe something else, though: the participants working under the relaxed standard exhibited more brain activity when they did manage to follow the rules. This suggests that norms that undermine compliance mainly trigger the brain to give out 'mental pats on the back' when people do manage to abide by the rules in challenging situations.'

The UU researchers conducted an additional experiment to examine how employees were working from home during the pandemic.


 As Van Nunspeet points out, you can't just explain the rules to employees and leave it at that. Organisations also need to be aware of the prevailing social norms among their employees, especially those that tend to undermine compliance. 'After all, if standards are relaxed and compliance isn't that important, people mainly feel pleased with themselves when they do manage to stick to the rules. Employers, on the other hand, might prefer them to be worried when they actually break the rules.'

Working from home

The UU researchers conducted an additional experiment to examine how employees were working from home during the pandemic. Van Nunspeet: 'As it turns out, the influence of prevailing social norms on compliance extends beyond the physical workplace. As is the case in the workplace, relaxed norms also lead employees working from home to conclude that compliance isn't that important.'