Norms Beat Empathy

Consider two bus-seat scenarios.

In the first scenario, a bus (or train) has seats, but sometimes not enough, so that many have to stand. Imagine that this bus sells (single-use) elite cards, so that folks without elite cards must surrender their seat to elite cardholders if no other seats are available. Imagine also that you saw that someone nearby had dropped a card, and instead of returning it to them you kept it for yourself. You expect that if you had asked aloud if anyone dropped a card, the right person would have identified themselves. But you took it instead so that you could sit when the bus was crowded. Now consider: how bad would you feel about this?

Got it?  Ok, now consider a second scenario, where bus seating is a free for all – first to grab a seat gets it. Imagine that as you and a big crowd get on a bus you rush to grab a seat before someone else takes it.  Now consider: how bad would you feel about this?

My guess is that you probably felt a lot less bad on this second scenario. But the consequences of your act is pretty similar – in both cases you gain a seat at the expense of someone else. Yes, the fact that someone paid for their card suggests a higher than average value for sitting, but this isn’t a really strong clue about their value; many other considerations are relevant.  So the amount of hurt you expect to have caused shouldn’t be that different.

Your feeling much less bad when law and norms let you grab a seat suggests that you mainly feel bad about violating laws and norms – your concern about the people involved is secondary. If asked why it is bad to steal you might express sympathy with the sad victim, but that’s not really why you feel bad about stealing.

For a similar comparison, consider trying to seduce a married person or a unmarried person. Many people think the first act is immorality of the worse sort, while the second act is quite respectable. But in both cases the person seduced becomes less available to other partners, and in both cases your gain is someone else’s loss. Yes the fact that they chose to get married is a clue about the value they gain from each other, but it isn’t a strong clue; it might be overcome by other considerations.  Many folks could reasonably convince themselves they are a better match for the seducee than their competitors.

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  • Frank Adamek

    I like the post, but I disagree with the seduction example. For a single person, there (1) may not be any other partners available in a broad time period [cf marriage], and (2) if the seduction results in only a one night stand, you’ve only taken several hours of their time, at probable high benefit to them as well. On both counts, your gain is not someone elses loss.

    For a married person, I don’t think that their spouse’s real gripe is going to be “Well shoot, I really liked that person, but I guess they’re not available anymore.” It’s not like they were a suitor trying to date someone who finds out they’re taken.

  • Charles

    Are there kids in the picture?

  • Salem

    Am I missing something here? Isn’t this just a statement of the obvious, that most people have real ethical standards? It’s not that “concern for people is secondary,” it’s that utilitarian/consequentialist pseudo-morality is unpopular.

    • Jess Riedel

      In less snide terms: this seems like a utilitarian confused by the fact that most people are deontologists.

  • Hi Robin,

    I think you’re missing something in both your comparisons. In the first you mention that taking the card suggests only a higher value to it. I would counter that there is much more at stake with the card. The violation of a norm that is the taking the card is significantly different that the violation of the norm of going for the seat. The taking of the card is an individual act, against an individual. The racing for the last free seat is something everyone has a free opportunity to do, and to anticipate.

    Further, the purchase of the card suggests a higher value, sure, but it also was an individuals choice and act. They invested more in anticipation of a longer benefit.

    I have to say that your second example is even weirder. The idea that the only impact of one behavior over the other is a person “becoming less available to others…” is a radical simplification that doesn’t seem to suggest any kind of sociological forethought. Really?


  • Janos

    I think empathy in both cases can be sufficient for the observed behavior; the person who felt entitlement according to the norms will feel worse from losing something they thought they’d acquired than from losing something they were unsure they could get. Loss-aversion.

    • Nathan Cook

      I think this line of reasoning can go even further. If we imagine a person feeling mild annoyance at losing a seat to a more pushy person, and outrage at having his elite pass stolen, his feelings in the latter case may in turn be motivated by empathy with the other person. The first person feels the second person’s satisfaction at having broken a norm as a negative emotion, which he attempts to rid himself of, even though the thief was motivated by the desire for a seat, not to break a rule. So we have two people, each behaving empathetically, but each modelling the other as being responsive directly to norms. This fits with the “fundamental attribution error” theory, where people think of themselves as situationally motivated, but of others as “being” good or bad.

  • ryan

    Is this a different conclusion than Adam Smith’s “earthquake in China” hypothetical in Theory of Moral Sentiments? It seems like it’s somewhat different, but I’m not sure I’m catching the subtlety

  • Isn’t the example where there are more passengers than seats a zero-sum game? The seduction example need not be a zero sum game, because it can stretch over a longer period of time as well.

  • Ben

    I find it curious that your analysis of seduction omits the gain or loss of the person being seduced. It’s generally believed that the optimal number of relationships to be in is one; it follows that seducing a single person is good for them while seducing a married person is bad for them.

    The dating market doesn’t clear nearly as well as the bus-seat market, since the transaction costs of sitting in an empty seat are low, while the costs associated with finding a dating partner can be very high. I tend to think that the primary function of seduction is to lower these transaction costs.

    • divide

      It’s generally believed that the optimal number of relationships to be in is one

      I can’t see how that’s generally believed. I know neither myself nor a notable number of my friends don’t seem to believe that. Also, for your reference, see

      Also, although perhaps it follows, I don’t agree that a person being married implies that seducing them would be bad for them. If they let you seduce them often it’s because they agree it’s good for them.

  • anon

    A person who dropped a paid-for seat card to the ground has already paid for the price of a seat. The loss of a card makes him unambiguously worse off.

    A person who boards a crowded bus has to choose whether to rush for a seat or not. In equilibrium, the effort expended on scrambling for seats dissipates the expected benefit of sitting (Some people are lucky and grab a seat with little effort, but others will expend effort and fail). So grabbing a seat before anyone else does not make anyone else worse off.

  • Joseph K

    I don’t think either of the two comparisons balance out. When you take the elite card, the person who had it is not just losing a seat, but also loses the money used to pay for the card. Also, with the second example, taking someone who’s single is different from taking someone who’s married because the spouse of that person has something invested in them (time, money, children, emotions, compromises). If you decide to seduce a woman away from her husband, the husband loses out on whatever investment he’s made in their marriage and his relationship with her, which is probably quite substantial. Whereas if you take that same woman from that same man, but the man is only a prospective suitor like you, then he only loses out on the relatively smaller investment he’s made as a prospective suitor

    • Agreed. Taking something somebody else paid for is in fact stealing. Taking something that is first-come-first-serve is not.

      Same standards go for seducing a married woman, basically, with fuzzier boundaries. Single people are “first come, first serve” as far as dating is concerned. Married people are not because somebody already “paid” for them. (This metaphor doesn’t trouble me because I’m anti-marriage.)

  • Unnamed

    What if you got an elite card because of an error by a card machine – the card never belonged to anyone else? Using it to get a seat would still be a norm violation, and the consequences would be the same as with taking a seat in the free-for-all case, but I wouldn’t feel nearly as bad about using the machine error card as I would about the dropped card.

    That means that our emotional response to the dropped card example is based in part on concern for the person who dropped the card. The identifiable victim effect makes empathy stronger in that case than in the other two, and so norms & empathy are able to work together to have a bigger influence on people’s behavior and feelings.

    • Unnamed

      The more general point is that norms that give people rights (like the right to a seat) are naturally reinforced by empathy, because if you violate the norm you are depriving someone of what they’re entitled to. You have empathy for the harmful consequences to the person, you are concerned about the norm violation, and you have this new kind of empathy, empathy for having their rights violated, and these combine to produce a stronger effect than you’d get from mere empathy or a mere norm.

      • Philo

        I would add that one emphatically feels the disappointment of the person whose right under the norm or law is being violated. Norms/laws are coordinating mechanisms, on which people rely (to a considerable extent). Disappointing their expectations is an additional harm to them (and it detracts from social coordination).

  • Jake

    Your suggestion that having paid for a card or chosen to marry a person are “not strong clues” because “other considerations are relevant” (?) is hand-waving of the worst sort. It’s not at all obvious to me that these are unimportant factors. Please elaborate.

    Interestingly, you’re not really arguing that “norms beat empathy,” you’re suggesting that experiences of empathy arise in situations involving artificial norms (like bus passes) as well as situations involving things seen naturally and universally as amoral (like murder). This is hardly a revelation, and has nothing to do with “beating empathy,” whatever that even means.

  • Metacognition

    I think one could make a case that these examples could be about having empathy for individuals rather than classes. When you take someones ticket you imagine taking a particular person’s ticket. When you rush to a seat you imagine taking from a class (people looking for seats). The same is true with the seduction example.

  • Patrick L

    Many philosophers object to having a moral philosophy based on religion because moral truths need to be true whether or not God Said so. But if Morality IS simply an adherence to laws and norms, a set of instructions for the rules of the game and breaking them (does something? Makes us feel bad?), then this classic objection might not be as solid as we think it is.

    I personally never had objection with the idea that morality wasn’t about Empathy or Utility, but I can see how it might be a shocking conclusion.

  • Charlie O

    Two thoughts:

    1. These examples create situations were sympathies are similar, but norms are different. And we see that people follow norms rather than sympathies. This leads us to believe that when norms and sympathies go together, it is norms that indicate where we should sympathize with people. For example, you give up your seat for a pregnant lady not because you sympathize with her back pain from standing, but because norms dictate giving up your seat.

    In order to disprove this we need to think of a situation where sympathies trump norms.

    2. One thing I find interesting is that in these two situations, I would justify my ‘immoral’ action by making the injured party less sympathetic in my head. I would think that the bus pass was only $20, a small sum of money that will not break the owner. Or I would think that the cheated spouse is not doing enough to keep their cheater spouse happy and satisfied. So, rationalizing sympathies helps me break social norms. But that does not show that norms follow sympathies, just that norms and sympathies are interrelated in my head. So I like these examples that help pull apart norms and sympathies.

  • blink

    I cannot say how these norms arise, but it does appear that they support the more efficient outcomes in each case. The “elite” cards eliminate much wasted effort jocking for position in line and the “don’t seduce” norm ought to induce greater investment in joint-goods and greater specialization among spouses. These and similar norms help to sharpen the blurry edges of property rights.

  • magicdufflepud

    Regarding the bus example: as other have stated similarly, securing a seat on the bus requires and element of skill, thus conferring the feeling that that seat is the reward for a successful effort. As an example, some people better anticipate which cars will be fullest and where the doors will stop along the platform when waiting for the metro. Standing near a dropped card takes luck.

    Regarding the seduction example: I imagine we believe the seduced party in a marriage suffers a misfortune because she is less able to assess the marginal value of either relationship. It’s my understanding that the psychological basis of most cheating is the drive to seek novelty. Making the assumptions that seduction in marriage occurs later (in years) into the relationship and that novelty tends to diminish with time, it seems that those seduced out of marriage will have become unduly susceptible to sources of novelty. Thus, we see them as having traded an intense pleasure over a short duration over a moderate pleasure for an indefinite duration. I’d like to see data about average length of relationships between seducer and seduced in these cases.

    More concretely, I think we see seduction out of marriage as a loss because the person seduced has left one decent relationship for another with no long-term potential. I’d also guess the degree of misfortune would depend on the age of the seduced and her prospects/transaction costs for finding a new relationship.

  • MSG

    What’s missing from this analysis is the obvious. Not returning lost property when the owner can easily be found is considered theft or akin to theft, as is adultery.Theft is wrong. It doesn’t matter how much the elite card’s rightful owner suffers or how much the wronged husband is angered or upset. It’s the card owner’s and the husband’s prerogative to be upset or not — it’s his grievance, just as it was his card and his wife — and none of the thief or adulterer’s business.

    • Nathan Cook

      The prohibitions against theft and adultery are norms. So is minding your business, in fact. Saying “theft is wrong” is a restatement of the norm, except that talking about norms is more of an outsider’s way of talking. So we say “murder is wrong” but “rural Afghans have a strong norm against women showing their hair in public”.

  • Gil

    I would argue the comparisons are not equal. In the first cases in both scenarios you are breaking into a someone else’s contract. Someone paid for that ticket and that’s someone’s wife – it’s theft and adultery respectively. Whereas the second cases of both scenario are simply “first come, first serve”.

  • Norms = Empathy

    If you value the effect that the norm or law has on your life then you dislike seeing the norm violated and empathize with those it is violated against.

    In the priority seating example those who value property rights and rely on society to enforce their rights are likely to empathize with the victim.

    You also muddy the thought experiment by making it theft of lost property.

    The use of the word law also makes things a bit shaky. Sure some respond to norms out of fear of the group but the group as a whole needs to support the norm. More often members will empathize with a norm. A law is more likely to be enforced by one group of people onto another group of people. Law for me brings up the idea of paying taxes and driving slow.

  • I think you wrote a damn fine argument, Robin.
    -I just ran across this blog -and I’m pleased. 🙂

  • Explodicle

    I actually have LESS of a problem with finding the ticket than hustling for a seat. The person who drops a ticket had extra money to burn, so I don’t mind so much taking things from them. Similarly, I would rather rob an equal amount of money from someone wealthy than some random person. (I assume the elderly and disabled still get priority bus seating for free.)

    • Jordan

      This argument falls flat if we assume that the price of an elite pass is within the means of a typically impoverished person; maybe they really care that much about having a seat on the bus. They could be living without a TV because they have a socially-unrecognized disability that makes standing on a bus a painful affair.

      As far as I can tell, Explodicle is just rationalizing his self-interest to sound like it dismisses traditional ethical concerns regarding property, when in fact he has little intuitive grasp of such concerns to begin with; in a non-communist society, he is “evil”.

  • charles

    case 1:

    People get a limited amount of money to spend in a year. Since you didn’t mention an income differential, I’ll assume that the two working class schlubs on a bus make roughly amount of money.

    Let’s say they each buy all the same stuff and have $5 remaining in their yearly budget.

    Person A buys a seat entitlement card with his because he has arthritis in his knees.

    Person B has arthritis in his knees too, but he buys knee braces with his $5 that allow how to stand fine in a bus. Person A tried knee braces last year, but they only helped a little bit, so this year he decided it was worth more to buy the pass.

    Person B finds person A’s bus pass and uses it to score a seat.

    Person A rides the bus standing with sore knees.

    Society is worse off on net.

    case 2:

    There are no elite passes, lets say A and B both bought knee braces. B’s still help him stand in a bus way better than A’s do for A. B rushes and gets the seat first (but,we’ll assume there was a 50% probablity of this outcome).

    Society is worse off on net.

    But, the two cases are not symmetric (assuming A and B both have an each chance at a seat in case 1). In the first case, A and B both had a preference signaling mechanism available to them (whether or not they decided to spend their money on the pass rather than on something else). B, by ignoring this signal “violated a norm”, but also statistically made society worse off on net.

    Where am I going wrong here?

  • Jason

    A determination of the value of norms cannot be drawn from the examples used, since the object of empathy is not being controlled for.

  • Two possible rules regarding the problem of seduction benefits and costs between parties and to society:
    (1) the married loser could sue the seducer for estrangement.
    (2) the married loser could pay for an audit (or have an audit facilitator cover audit costs on contingency) to demonstrate the seducer’s behavior made society worse off (loser pays audit costs including loss of income and reasonable incentive/discincentive fines).

  • You miss something in the bus scenario, and that is that in the second scenario, you *do* pay something for the seat.

    I was frequently in that scenario for three years, where there was a rush and a fight to get on early to the school bus. Not only so you could get a seat, but the “cool” seats (in the back). As an archetypal nerd I was not cool and did not want to be cool, so I did not rush and did not fight. This means that whenever the buss was full (not every day) I stood for the 5 miles home. No big deal.

    So notice that in that scenario, those who get the seat pays for it, by “fighting” and “rushing” to get the seat. And those who stand are usually those for whom a seat have little value. Of course this excludes handicapped, elderly and pregnant, but so does your example, so I think your example is in fact exactly modeling an overfull school bus.

    But in the first case, you don’t pay buy rushing. You pay with money. That means that you, who did not think a seat was worth the price, took it from somebody that did.

    So in fact, in the first case you are really stealing a seat you do not feel is worth much from somebody that does. In the second case you rush for a seat you find worth the rush and take it from somebody who feels it’s not worth the rush.

    Obviously you should feel bad in the first case, and not in the second.

    Also, calling out loud if somebody lost a ticket is not something useful, as the tickets are obviously not personalized. Anyone could say “Yeah me!”. So not feeling bad for that is OK. I wouldn’t, just as I wouldn’t call out “who lost ten dollars” on a crowded bus. However, the one who lost the ticket should reasonably call out and say “oh, I lost my seating ticket”.