Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Rule-breaking

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Rule-breaking: Why do we break rules?

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Every day, people's behaviour is governed by rules, whether they are laws, social norms or moral convictions. There are different reasons for following them, and different reasons for breaking them. This chapter looks at individuals' motivations for breaking the rules in the domains of driving, file-sharing, and plagiarism.

So, how about you?[edit]

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Increasing the self-evaluation skills of drivers improves road-rule compliance and driving safety (Berg, 2006). So take a moment:

What was your main motivation last time you drove a car? (Jovanovic, Stanojevic & Stanojevic, 2011)

  • I wanted to get somewhere (I wish I could fly!)
  • Just for fun (Yeehah!)
  • To impress people (Yeah, baby!)
  • For the power and control (I am the Master of the Universe!)

What aggressive driving behaviours do you engage in? (Jovanovic, Stanojevic & Stanojevic, 2011)

  • I might, possibly, occasionally, drive just a little bit fast
  • I’ll sit on someone’s bumper to encourage them to drive a bit faster or get out of the way
  • I’ll weave in and out of a line of traffic to try to get ahead
  • I’ll run a red light if it’s only a little bit red
  • I honk my horn like an elephant with hayfever
  • I swear like a sailor at other drivers
  • I could knock myself out with my hand gestures
  • I flash my lights like a strobe on the dance floor
  • I sit on the speed limit in the overtaking lane to keep everyone else in line

On your last driving trip (Bone & Mowen, 2006):

  • Were you a young male? (Maybe not much you can do about this...)
  • Were you stressed? (Fact of life, sigh)
  • Was it hot? (Crack a window, try the AC)
  • Were you drunk? (Hope not!)
  • Was there a lot of traffic? (Ah, peak hour...)


The need for rules about driving behaviour is illustrated by the fact that the leading cause of death among 15 to 44 year-olds is injury-related to driving (Berg, 2006). So, why do people break road rules if the potential consequences are so severe?

To begin, people have different reasons for getting behind the wheel: a desire to reach a destination, the pleasure of fast driving, to make an impression on others, and to experience feelings of power and control (Jovanovic, Stanojevic & Stanojevic, 2011). The goals of driving are important in improving driving safety (Berg, 2006) and have been found to change with age (Berg, 2006). Motives for driving are important predictors of aggressive driving (Jovanovic et al., 2011).

Jovanovic et al. (2011) identified tailgating, weaving, speeding, running red lights, blocking passing lanes, honking horns, using profanity, making obscene gestures and flashing headlights as instances of aggressive driving behaviour. In a study of Serbian drivers, they found these behaviours were associated with a habit of rushing, deliberately exhibiting disrespect to other people and taking pleasure from risky behaviour (Jovanovic et al., 2011). Bone and Mowen (2006) found that time pressure, a tendency towards risk and arousal and the widespread acceptance of competitive behaviour contributed to individuals' willingness to drive aggressively, breaking road rules. Bone and Mowen (2006) also found that aggressive driving was positively associated with the number of miles driven per year, a need to win and emotional instability, while aggressive driving was negatively associated with conscientiousness and the need for learning.

Jovanovic et al. (2011) suggest that the personality traits associated with aggressive driving and driving anger are expressed when situations arise which provoke them. Risk factors and provocative situations include traffic congestion, stress, heat, alcohol and drug use, smoking, being a young male and being unmarried (Bone & Mowen, 2006).

So why would you break the rules if you believe it is morally wrong to do so? Holding a moral conviction predicts the intention to act, but there is a gap between intentions and behaviour (Godin, Conner & Sheeran, 2005). Godin et al., (2005) examined the relationship between intentions, behaviour and moral norms in various health-related behaviours, including driving over the speed limit, and found that moral norms are most predictive of behaviour when the behaviour is considered by individuals in moral terms. This suggests that if drivers are, for instance, more focused on being late, enjoying the experience of driving fast or getting where they need to go than on the moral implications of their actions, they may be more likely to break the rules.

Other influences on driving behaviours are external incentives and sanctions. An incentive is an inducement to perform a behaviour, such as offering lower insurance premiums for safer drivers (Berg, 2006). A sanction is intended to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour by acting as a punishment and a deterrent; for example, a fine for exceeding the speed limit (Mulder, Verboon & de Cremer, 2009).

Mulder et al. (2009) manipulated sanction severity in a lottery ticket distribution situation. Participants were asked to share at least two of their lottery tickets with other participants whom the experimenters said had no lottery tickets. Participants were told they could choose not to share, but would be fined for not doing so. Mulder et al. found that the severity of the sanction imposed influenced participants’ views of how morally wrong it was not to share the tickets. Severe sanctions encouraged a stronger sense of moral wrong-doing than did mild sanctions.

In a second experiment, Mulder et al. (2009) manipulated the strength of sanctions imposed on cheating in an exam setting and measured participants’ attitudes towards the authority of the university. The experiment demonstrated that an increase in moral norms only occurred for those with a high degree of trust in the authority of the university. For those with a low level of trust, larger sanctions for cheating behaviour caused no corresponding increase in the moral norms. Reasons for individuals’ low trust in authority included doubt about authorities’ moral intentions and disagreement with the authorities’ moral judgments.

How do lottery tickets and cheating on an exam relate to breaking the road rules? It suggests that large fines may encourage moral disapproval of breaking the rules, but only in people who trust the authority of the government or police who are setting and enforcing the fines. Mulder et al. (2008) also note that individuals’ perceptions of the fines matter too. They found that a fine seen as a form of compensation to a victim made people judge a behaviour as less morally wrong, while a fine seen as a punishment to the perpetrator made them judge the behaviour as more morally wrong. Extreme sanctions can also serve to decrease moral norms due to the perception of their unfairness (Mulder et al., 2008). However, Godin et al. (2005) found that individuals’ moral norms only apply when a situation is viewed in moral terms. It is possible that morality and the deterrent effect of sanctions take a backseat when drivers get behind the wheel.


Copyright laws cover the reproduction, publication, distribution and broadcasting of original musical compositions (Clark, 2007), however these concepts have become more difficult to apply in the digital information age (Scharf, 2011). Different laws exist in different jurisdictions regarding the illegality of and personal liability for the unauthorised distribution of music files (Clark, 2007), so what is the effect of this inconsistency and ambiguity on behaviour?

Clark (2007) suggests that a myth exists in the community that file-sharing is a generally legal thing to do and that only around 25% of people who download using peer-to-peer technology are willing to pay for the material they download. The research finding by Godin et al. (2005) that individuals’ health-related behaviours are only predicted by their moral norms when the behaviour is considered in moral terms may have relevance here. If file-sharers do not consider the act of file-sharing to be illegal, moral motivations not to engage in the behaviour become less important. Clark (2007) states that the legal action being undertaken by companies against file-sharers is partly to serve as a deterrent by raising awareness of the legal consequences of file-sharing.

The role of trust in authorities (Mulder et al., 2009) may also apply. Mulder et al. (2009) suggest that doubt regarding the authorities’ moral intentions contributes to low trust in authorities. Viewing legal action against file-sharing as an attempt by copyright holders to regain a monopoly on the control and distribution of music (Scharf, 2011) as well as the belief that companies maintain too high profit margins (Clark, 2007) may contribute to doubt about the moral intentions of the copyright holders. Raising awareness of the legal consequences of file-sharing (Clark, 2007) may not be enough to shift decision-making about the practice into the moral domain. Mulder et al. (2008) found that people can disagree with the moral judgments of the authorities, decreasing trust in authorities, which reduces the effect of the severity of sanctions imposed on rule-breakers.


Plagiarism is conceived of as a type of theft or fraud, the passing off of another person’s work as your own (Gullifer & Tyson, 2010). It has traditionally been considered that plagiarism occurs due to ignorance of the norms regarding academic integrity, a lack of skill and experience when using academic standards, a deliberate disregard for the standards and a lack of morality on the part of individuals (East, 2010). In a focus group study of first- and third-year students in an Australian university, Gullifer and Tyson (2010) found students expressed a great deal of fear and confusion about plagiarism, and that students generally lacked a proper understanding of plagiarism and were unable to identify examples reliably. When do students plagiarise, and what motivates students to plagiarise on purpose?

Gullifer and Tyson (2010) suggest that not only is plagiarism a concept which needs to be taught to students to be understood, but that the reasons why plagiarism is wrong must also be taught. The reasons they cite for why plagiarism is considered wrong include that hard work becomes less rewarded, the value of honesty is undermined, the value of assessments in educational institutions is threatened and the public may be endangered through exposure to graduates lacking proper skills and training.

East (2010) suggests that plagiarism can be considered as either a failure to follow conventions, which can be addressed with education and training, or as a moral transgression, which can be punished. Gullifer and Tyson’s (2010) study of Australian students found that acts of plagiarism are thought of as fairly minor offences, while other acts of academic misconduct, such as cheating, are considered to be much worse. They found that a poor understanding of university policy, combined with a fear of being unfairly and severely punished for what students considered a minor transgression, led to feelings of resentment against the university and a sense of helplessness when it came to completing assignments. Gullifer and Tyson’s (2010) study suggests that students complied with rules about plagiarism less out of moral conviction and more out of fear of being caught and punished. East (2010) also reports that academic standards can be seen as impositions which unfairly impede success.

The feelings of resentment and the belief of the arbitrary nature of the university’s rules regarding plagiarism expressed in Gullifer and Tyson’s (2010) study is interesting to consider the findings regarding trust in authorities by Mulder et al. (2009). Mulder et al. suggest that disagreeing with an authority’s moral judgment decreases trust in the authority, which makes its sanctions less influential on morals. This suggests that for students to develop a moral conviction that plagiarism is wrong, knowing that it is heavily punished by the institution may not be convincing enough on its own.

Gullifer and Tyson’s (2010) and East’s (2010) studies suggest that students’ motivation not to plagiarise is largely external. Possible motivations for students to plagiarise include running out of time, a mismatch between the effort involved in an assignment and the grade, problems with workload and pressure to achieve success (Gullifer & Tyson, 2010). While people do behave in particular ways simply to avoid sanctions and punishments (Mulder et al., 2009), students face the task of balancing the risk of punishment against the pressures and stresses of the environment until they can adopt the moral standpoint of the academic setting as their own (Gullifer & Tyson, 2010).

For more information about plagiarism, see the University of Canberra’s Academic Skills page:

Plagiarism checklist[edit]

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The University of Canberra Academic Integrity Module (2011) identifies the following as forms of plagiarism:

  • copying from others, including words, ideas and graphics
  • getting someone else to write part or all of an assignment
  • copying without quotation marks
  • taking ideas and concepts from others without acknowledgement

Could any of the following tempt you to consider plagiarising?

  • I’m running out of time
  • the assignment isn’t worth enough to justify the effort required to complete it
  • I’ve got too much to do for too many subjects
  • there’s a lot of pressure on me to succeed
  • I don’t think I’ll get caught
  • I’m not sure if this is plagiarism or not, but I’ll risk it

(Gullifer & Tyson, 2010).

Is plagiarism really going to hurt anyone?

Would you mind if someone copied from you?

Would you trust your doctor if he or she had copy-and-pasted their way through their degree?

How about the bridge you are driving on if the engineer who designed it had paid someone to complete assignments? |}

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What do these signs mean to you?[edit]

Stop and think about your motivations for following or ignoring these rules

Cognitive dissonance theory[edit]

According to Cognitive Dissonance Theory, people can hold two or more conflicting beliefs at the same time (Izuma et al., 2010). Making a choice between the two can be uncomfortable and threaten one’s self-concept, leading to a change in preference towards the chosen behaviour (Stone & Focella, 2011). Changes in preferences have been observed using both self-report and brain-imaging techniques (Izuma et al., 2010).

A Driving Behaviour Example:

The conflicting beliefs:

  • keeping to the speed limit improves road safety
  • following behind a truck limits visibility and decreases road safety

The choiceL

  • overtake the truck

The cognitive dissonance:

  • unhappiness or discomfort at speeding to overtake the truck

Dissonance is reduced by changing beliefs to match behaviour:

  • good visibility is more important to road safety than maintaining the speed limit.

Try it yourself![edit]

According to Stone and Focella (2011), cognitive dissonance can be used to encourage behaviour change. Try this:

  1. Think of something which makes you feel good about yourself. Stone and Focella (2011) found the following is more effective for people with higher self-esteem, as they feel the threat to their sincerity and honesty more keenly.
  2. Publicly advocate a behaviour. Tell someone that you think downloading mp3s illegally or plagiarising is wrong, or tell them that a particular road rule is important. Tell them why. The audience makes this step more effective.
  3. Think of some instances when you’ve behaved differently from what you’ve just been saying. Don’t tell anyone. Feeling too ashamed could make you resistant to change.
  4. You should now be feeling a little uncomfortable at having behaved "badly". This is cognitive dissonance Your concept of yourself as a sincere and honest person has been threatened.
  5. Feel the motivation to change. People generally like to think they have integrity, and will be motivated to behave in a manner which will improve their perception of their sincerity and honesty.

(Stone & Focella, 2011).


Academic Integrity Module: AIM. (2011). Retrieved from The University of Canberra web site:

Berg, H-Y. (2006). Reducing crashes and injuries among young drivers: What kind of prevention should we be focusing on? Injury Prevention, 12(Suppl I), i15-i18. doi:10.1136/ip.2006.012062.

Bone, S. A., & Mowen, J. C. (2006). Identifying the traits of aggressive and distracted drivers: A hierarchical trait model approach. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 5, 454-464. doi:10.1002/cb.193.

Clark, B. (2007). Illegal downloads: Sharing out online liability: Sharing files, sharing risks. Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice, 2, 402-418. doi:10.1093/jiplp/jpm070.

East, J. (2010). Judging plagiarism: A problem of morality and convention. Higher Education, 59, 69-83. doi:10.1007/s10734-009-9234-9.

Fuller, A. (2006). Money for nothing and your MP3s for free. Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice, 1, 171-173. doi:10.1093/jiplp/jpi053

Godin, G., Conner, M., & Sheeran, P. (2005). Bridging the intention-behaviour ‘gap’: The role of moral norm. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 497-512. doi:10.1348/014466604X17452.

Gullifer, J., & Tyson, G. A. (2010). Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: a focus group study. Studies in Higher Education, 35, 463-481. doi:10.1080/03075070903096508.

Izuma, K., Matsumoto, M., Murayama, K., Samejima, K., Sadato, N., & Matsumoto, K. (2010). Neural correlates of cognitive dissonance and choice-induced preference change. PNAS, 107, 22014-22019. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1011879108.

Jovanovic, D., Stanojevic, P., & Stanojevic, D. (2011). Motives for, and attitudes about, driving-related anger and aggressive driving. Social Behavior and Personality, 39, 755-764. doi:10.2224/sbp.2011.39.6.755.

Mulder, L. B., Verboon, P., & de Cremer, D. (2009). Sanctions and moral judgements: The moderating effect of sanction severity and trust in authorities. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 255-269. doi:10.1002/ejsp.506.

Scharf, N. (2011). Napster’s long shadow: Copyright and peer-to-peer technology. Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice, 6, 806-812. doi:10.1093/jiplp/jpr137

Stone, J., & Focella, E. (2011). Hypocrisy, dissonance and the self-regulation processes that improve health. Self and Identity, 10, 295-303. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2010.538550.