Am I Normal? with Mona Chalabi: Should you break the law? (Transcript)
Monday, November 22, 2021
In the summer of 2020, when I was still living in New York, I flew to London because I hadn’t seen my family for a really long time. But the COVID pandemic was raging, and so, to get back home to the U.S., I would have to quarantine for two weeks in a third country.
I looked at a map and zoomed around the possibilities: Europe, South America, Asia... What would have been exciting before was just stressful now. I spent hours comparing COVID infection rates, testing rates, and looking up hospitals per capita.
And I ended up... in Barbados! At a near-deserted resort. Think Grand Budapest Hotel with a beach. When you look at pictures of this place, you see white sand beaches, turquoise water, glittering hotel pools.
But the truth about Barbados in August is... it rains. A lot. So, I rented a car. But the only ones available were automatics which, no offense, doesn’t really count as an actual vehicle to me. I circled the hotel parking lot to get used to driving this weird bumper car. And then I abandoned the semi-abandoned hotel.
The roads were calm, serene. I realized that this was the first time I had felt safe in a really, really long time. I started crying. And then, I stopped crying and turned up the radio.
When I got back to the hotel, I bumped into one of the other five guests at dinner. I mentioned my drive and he was surprised I felt so relaxed. He told me driving laws in Barbados are pretty loose. He said, “You could drive with an open bottle of rum and nobody would stop you.”
My first thought was “This guy is talking rubbish.” My second thought was, “Let me check.”
It turns out, there IS a law, though it’s debatable how well it's enforced.But the roads felt safe, so I kept on driving, kept on listening to music, and tried to enjoy the rest of my quarantine as best I could. But I couldn't get that guy's voice out of my head.
Two weeks later, I landed at JFK airport, grabbed my bags and hailed a taxi. I sat in the backseat, and as the driver swerved, slammed the brakes, and cursed the traffic, I started thinking—well, actually kind of panicking, really—about road safety in the U.S. It was late on a Saturday night. And as I looked around at the other cars on the road, I started thinking about drunk driving laws.
I just can’t be sure that these folks who might be heading out to the clubs don’t have bottles of rum in their laps! Even though I know it’s super illegal. You can be fined, jailed, or lose your license for drunk driving in New York.
But despite these serious penalties,around a THIRD of fatal crashes in the U.S. involve a drunk driver. And it’s been like that for decades.
All of this made me wonder... How do laws shape behavior?
From the TED Audio Collective, this is Am I Normal? I’m Mona Chalabi, and I'm a data journalist. I use numbers to make sense of the world around me. But it takes more than numbers to understand why people behave the way they do.
Long after my trip to Barbados, I kept on thinking about how most of us seem to follow most laws, most of the time. I mean, the reason that I don’t go around stealing things or kidnapping or murdering people isn’t just because it’s against the law. There is something much more complicated going on here.
So I called up Kenworthey Bilz, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
I'm also a social psychologist and I study the social psychology of law.
I'm going to start very simple here. ...What is a law? Like, what is a law meant to do? What's the point of law? What the hell is a law?
Yeah. So, it kind of depends on... how you look at it. You know, if you kind of are sitting around your Thanksgiving table talking to your, you know, relatives, you know, ask them what they think the law is. And they would say the law is something that tells you what you can do and can't do, and punishes you if you don't do it. But, you know, when you kind of dig a little bit deeper, you realize that if that's all that the law did, it would be a mighty expensive and, you know, difficult and unpleasant to live in world.
If the only way that the law works is through enforcement—in other words, punishing people when they break the law—then the state would need to enforce ALL the laws, all the time.
Just imagine what that would be like... especially for minor infractions like jaywalking. You would need surveillance EVERYWHERE, and you would need really serious punishments for every infraction. Essentially, you’d need a police state. And who wants to live like that?
The law definitely is interested in getting people to do things and getting people not to do things, but it generally doesn't do so through coercion. It does do so through trying to change people's attitudes or change people's minds, because if you want to do them because you think they're right, or don't do them because you think they're wrong, that's a much more functional system.
If you change people’s attitudes so that they WANT to comply with the law, then you don’t need a police state. People will just do what they think is right.
Psychologists often talk about internalization of norms. So when you do something because you want to do it, that's because you have internalized the norms. If instead you're only doing it because of, you know, external reasons, right, then that's an externalized norm that you only obey because you have to.
To put it a different way, there are the laws that you follow because you don’t want to get caught, and there are the laws that you follow even when nobody's watching, just because you agree with them.
Ideally people would follow drunk driving laws because they’ve internalized them... because they BELIEVE that it’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s not worth risking someone’s life. But that’s not always the case now, and it certainly wasn’t the case before.
I grew up in Texas in an era where, I distinctly remember, you know, riding with my dad to the drive-thru liquor store. And he would order a beer and crack it open and, and, you know, enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer day. And that sense that, by drinking I'm possibly killing somebody, just didn't occur to him. And perhaps didn't occur to, you know, society in general. It was very, very common to drink and drive.
It used to be so common to drink and drive that in 1982, more than HALF of all fatal accidents were alcohol-related.
So the question is, you know, what's the effect of passing a law? You know, you say it's like Law 101, of course you'd pass a law that would stop people from doing that. But it actually is kind of tricky to know when a law is going to help and when it's going to hurt.
After drunk driving laws got tougher, things DID change. Between 1982 and 1997, the percentage of fatal accidents involving alcohol fell from 53% to 34%. Even though that is still far too many fatalities, it’s a big improvement. But for that change to happen it took over a decade.
It takes time for culture to change and for people to shift their beliefs, because not everyone agrees with every new law—even if it is a really good idea.
And when there’s a lot of disagreement with a new law, well, things can get... complicated.
The way a law works isn’t always straightforward: it might take an indirect path to get the intended result. And that made me wonder whether new laws can have unexpected consequences.
So let me give like a weird example that is completely made up, I don't know if it's true. But let's say, in a certain country, you decide to ban drink-driving, drink-driving massively declines. Yay. Fantastic. But actually everyone is driving while high, because they're not allowed to drive while drunk, but the law says nothing about driving after you've had a lovely bit of marijuana. So how, how often does that happen? That there's some kind of unintended knock-on consequence that isn't fully measured and captured?
Really nice question, and man, is it tricky! So it, it actually even has a name. So it's the Peltzman effect.
Ooh, why Peltzman?
Yes. Sam Peltzman. So, he’s an economist who hypothesized that seat belts are actually not going to solve the problem of mortality because if people are wearing seat belts, they're going to compensate by driving more recklessly, right? He, he basically said people have a baseline level of risk that they're willing to undertake. And if you pass laws that reduce that risk, that just frees them up to take risks in other ways. And that's similar to your cannabis and drunk driving, right, or drinking. So if you make drunk driving highly illegal and heavily punished, that's just going to increase the number of people who then say, okay fine, I'll just smoke weed while I'm driving.
So, is the Peltzman Effect real? I did some research and the original study is controversial, but the Peltzman effect IS real. And you can see it in a ton of places. One study showed that when taxes on cigarettes were raised, instead of quitting, smokers just switched to cheaper cigarettes, with even more tar. And another study found that when cyclists wore helmets, people drove closer to them.
In the case of seat belts, we don’t really know if the Peltzman effect holds true. There have been studies about whether seat belts lead to reckless driving. Some say yes and some say no. But a multitude of seat belt studies conducted over decades can agree on one thing: seat belts save lives.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that between 1975 and 2017, seat belts have prevented close to 400,000 deaths.
Even if it's the case that people drove aggressively, it's still the case that driving aggressively with a seat belt is better than not having a seat belt.
Well-enforced seat belt laws WORK. They changed people’s behavior, whether or not they believed in seat belts, whether or not they drove more recklessly. The seat belts still saved lives, and so you could say the law worked the way that lawmakers expected it to.
But sometimes, laws DON’T work the way that we expect them to. Sometimes, laws can backfire, especially if enough people really disagree with those laws.
And of course, we have got a prime example of that right now, with mandates for COVID-19 vaccines and masks. Professor Bilz and I tried to do what a lot of politicians and public health officials are trying to do: figure out what would happen if we passed a law that required almost everyone to get vaccinated.
I don’t know, it's really, really hard. It's, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing, right? Because if we had a more internalized belief about the importance of vaccines, then the law wouldn't need to be there in the first place. And I actually worry that laws could potentially act AGAINST internalization if they instead fuel the notion that government is malign and doesn't have your best interests at heart.
So the law is kind of in this dilemma. So, let's say you're a legislator, and you're trying to decide whether or not to implement a vaccine mandate or masking mandate. Well, one thing that you can do is you can measure people's current attitudes about masking and about vaccines, and also measure their beliefs about what their fellow citizens believe, right? You could either do that directly through asking them, “What do you think? What do you think other people think?” Or you could just measure the number of people who are engaging in it.
If almost everyone is wearing a mask and believes that their neighbors are wearing masks, then you probably don’t need a new mask mandate. A new law could suggest to people that there is another, now illegal, option that they just hadn’t considered before.
But what if you find out that FEW people are wearing masks?
Then maybe that's actually a good candidate for passing the law, because then that does do two things. One, it actually might induce some people who are extrinsically motivated, right? But it might also convince them that, hey, the law actually maybe knows something that I don't.
Of course, THAT only works if people trust their political leaders to have their best interests at heart. If they don’t trust them, then they may not agree to, or believe in, those new laws.
Suffice it to say that the law is often in this dilemma of, do I make things worse by, by, you know, changing the laws, or do I make things better and it's not always obvious?
The case of vaccine mandates seems particularly tricky. See, you’re not just asking people to protect themselves, but also to protect those around them. To put other people’s lives ahead of their own comfort. And THAT can set up a conflict. Here’s why:
The other thing that laws do is they describe who has status, who has power and who is on top. Now that becomes obvious when it comes to things like abortion laws, right? People's take on that is not, even though they might say that it is, about the safety of abortion. It's about things like the status of women versus the status of unborn children versus, you know, even the status of different kind of religions. So, on the one hand we have the, you know, kind of the law and public health actors and, you know, officials who are acting like the thing that's at stake with vaccines is do they work and are they safe, when they actually seem to be more about individualism or freedom or the right to be able to take risks.
And this is, you know, REALLY where it gets difficult. If you pass a law that coerces vaccines, you can actually, really play right into the hands of people who think that what vaccines are about is freedom, right? And individualism.
There is a lot of misinformation and some people just don’t know how safe the vaccines are, and how well they work. And vaccination has become a political issue: in the U.S., Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they won’t get vaccinated.
And there is a trust issue too. According to the COVID States Project, 71% of vaccinated people say they trust their doctors and hospitals, quote, “a lot.” But only 39% of people who aren’t vaccinated say the same.
So, what would happen if there were laws that required people to get vaccinated?
When people first started talking about vaccine mandates, there was a lot of worry that it would backfire. But it’s possible that over time, people are getting more comfortable with the idea. In September 2021, two-thirds of unvaccinated people said that if their employer forced them to take a vaccine, they would quit their jobs.
But so far? That hasn’t happened much. People have just been getting vaccinated. When United Airlines mandated vaccines for their 67,000 employees, only 232 refused. And when North Carolina mandated vaccines for its 10,000 healthcare workers at state-run facilities,just 16 were fired for not complying.
So, in this case, it seems like the law is working. But that wasn’t always a given.
These aren't really legal questions. They really are psychological and social questions, and moral questions. So it's not what laws can we pass, it's what laws ought we to pass, and which laws are going to be effective in the long run.
Just the other day, after talking with Professor Bilz, I drove to meet a friend for dinner.
As I put on my seat belt automatically, without even thinking, I realized how many laws we take for granted... laws which might have been controversial at the outset... laws which I suddenly felt super grateful for.
Like the seat belt law that went into effect in New York in 1984.
And the handful of laws about turn signals that were enacted in 1960.
And as I slowed to a stop at a light turning from yellow to red, I felt grateful that we have traffic lights, which weren’t widespread until 1930.
It seems like the older the traffic law, the more that we have internalized it. That is tough. Because it means that even if COVID vaccines DO roll out across the country tomorrow, it’s going to take a while before more people will accept those vaccines.
Driving laws show us that behavior CAN change fast, but culture can take a long time to catch up.
Am I Normal? is part of the TED Audio Collective. It’s hosted and produced by me, Mona Chalabi, and brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. This episode was produced by Shoshi Shmuluvitz, Sara Nics is Transmitter’s Executive Editor, Wilson Sayre and Lacy Roberts are our Managing Producers, and Gretta Cohn is our Executive Producer.
The TED Team is Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jennifer Nam is our fantastic researcher and fact checker. Additional production by Domino Sound.
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To get the transcripts and research that I talked about in this show, you can check out the link in the description.
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You can find more about this episode’s guest, Kenworthey Bilz, at the University of Illinois College of Law.