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Are You a Natural Rule Follower? Not Likely …

April 30, 2014

When it comes to personal safety, and specifically, one’s penchant for following, bending or breaking rules, it helps to understand the psychology behind rule following. I have to warn you that this may shake your preconceived notions about yourself because all of us break rules to varying degrees.

Some years ago when I was teaching, I was giving a final during finals week. Many students’ faces could not hide their stress as they sought to answer questions. However, what specifically caught my attention was how other students behaved differently in the same situation.145917857

Group 1: Their eyes stayed on their own work, never straying, keeping their answers covered.

Group 2: Their eyes stayed mainly on their own work, but made little attempt to cover their answers. Every so often they’d make eye contact with me or another student and smile – then return to their test booklet.

Group 3: Their eyes were actively looking for answers and it was evident. Some were more discreet than others, but getting a little support from a fellow classmate was their mission. They kept their answers uncovered and encouraged others to do the same.

At this point I need to state the obvious -- every student understood that cheating was prohibited and grounds for failure on the test. This serious consequence should provide adequate negative reinforcement for students to not risk it. Yet, as you well know the negative consequences for rule breaking work for some, but may have little impact on others’ actual behavior. Paradoxically, negative consequences rarely work for the intended group (rule benders/breakers) and are unnecessary for the rule followers.

You may identify with one of these three groups, or based on your grade going into the final, your behavior may have changed. If it changed, it likely only changed marginally. Why? Because of how your brain makes decisions related to following rules, which in our context relates back to your SafetyDNA. Let’s do a quick test and see how you do.

Situation: You got to bed late last night watching TV, and unfortunately you unknowingly hit the snooze button this morning and are now in a hurry. You need to be at work by 8 a.m. to pull data for a report you are presenting at 9 a.m. to your boss and her boss. Coming across as competent in this meeting has career implications. The earliest you will now arrive at work is 8:50 a.m. and that will require no traffic issues and a heavy foot on the accelerator.

You jump in the car and take off. What is the likelihood you will…

  • Exceed the speed limits to gain a little extra time?

You hesitantly call your co-worker Chris, who always arrives early, and ask for help pulling the report (even though you hate to ask). Chris lets you know this is an inconvenience to say the least.

  • How likely are you to ponder more socially desirable explanations for justifying your tardiness to Chris than saying you overslept?

Depending on your psychological wiring, your responses to both these questions will vary. Will you drive the speed limit, go a little above it, or a lot above it? Will you tell Chris the exact truth as to why you’re running late and risk being seen as irresponsible, or use a partial truth? For most, there is considerable mental gymnastics back and forth, not because we are unclear what the speed limit is or why we are running late, but because the perceived implications of the consequences. You see most normal people don’t deliberately break rules unless there is a perceived personal gain that offsets the risk. In other words, we don’t typically cheat on tests we have prepared for and know all the answers.

At Select International we test millions of individuals every year. And when we look at the responses to test questions, information provided on resumes or in interviews, it isn’t a stretch to say that most everyone bends the truth a little bit – but certain individuals do much more than others. What accounts for these differences? Check back next week when we explain why certain individuals have little internal conflict when it comes to not following rules, while others fret over it.


Chris Klinvex is Co-Founder of Select International, and EVP of the Safety Solutions.

Chris Klinvex Chris Klinvex , was the EVP and Co-Founder of Select International, acquired by PSI. He led the Safety Solutions Group focused on innovative research based safety solutions that are changing how organization approach workplace safety. His team’s most recent award for the new SafetyDNA® Assessment and Development program won the prestigious 2017 Best Online Safety training award from Occupational Health and Safety.