Automatic Norms in Academia

In my career as a researcher and professor, I’ve come across many decisions where my intuition told me that some actions are prohibited by norms. I’ve usually just obeyed these intuitions, and assumed that everyone agrees. However, I only rarely observe what others think regarding the same situations. In these rare cases, I’m often surprised to see that others don’t agree with me.

I illustrate with the following set of questions on which I’ve noticed divergent opinions. Most academic institutions have no official rules to answer them, nor even an official person to which one can ask. Professors are just supposed to judge for themselves, which they usually do without consulting anyone. And yet many people treat these decisions if they are governed by norms.

  1. What excuses are acceptable for students missing an assignment or exam?
  2. If a teacher will be out of town on a class day, must a substitute teacher always be found or can classes sometimes be cancelled? How often can this be done?
  3. Is there any limit on how much extra help or extra credit assignments teachers can offer only to particular students?
  4. Should students be excused for misunderstanding questions due to poor understanding of English?
  5. Is it okay in college to teach students to just remember and then spit back relatively dogmatic statements, instead of trying to teach them how to think about more complex problems?
  6. Is it okay to assign a final exam, but then toss the exams and give out final grades based on all prior assignments?
  7. Is it okay to give all grad students A grades, and to praise all their papers as brilliant, as a way to compete to get students to pick you as their PhD advisor?
  8. Is it okay to lecture while stumbling drunk?
  9. Must you cite the work that actually influenced your work if it is lowbrow like blogs, wikipedia, or working papers, or if it is outside your discipline?
  10. Can you cite prestigious papers that look good in your references if they did not influence your work?
  11. Is it okay to write as if the first work of any consequence on a topic was the first to appear in a top prestige venue, in effect presuming that lower prestige prior work was inadequate?
  12. Should you cite papers requested by journal referees if you don’t think them relevant?
  13. How much searching is okay, searching in theory assumptions or in statistical model specifications, in order to find the kind of result you wanted? Must you disclose such searching?
  14. Is it okay to publish roughly the same idea in several places as long as you don’t use the exact same words?

I expect the same holds in most areas of life. Most detailed decisions that people treat as norm-governed have no official rules or judges. Most people decide for themselves without much thought or discussion, assuming incorrectly that relevant norms are obvious enough that everyone else agrees.

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  • Geoffrey S Hicking

    An em is placed in a situation where it will quickly loose its use and thus be obliged to commit suicide or be killed by the withholding of sustaining resources- i.e.: being spawned from a leisure em and worked for an em day, or placed in a discussion with an em leader before a vote so to relay confidential information back to the voter em.

    Is there any context/situation where that would be unethical?

  • http://morningtableaux.blogspot.com/ Benquo

    This reminds me of the first time I went camping as an adult, at a public campground with marked (and nearly-adjacent) campsites. As we were camping with hammocks instead of tents, and there were no on-site showers, I wanted to know whether changing clothes outdoors was accepted behavior or a norm-violation.

    There didn’t seem to be any posted rules, and an internet search revealed people expressing strong but differing opinions about what was obviously okay, but no evidence whatsoever that there was an actual norm, or the sort of community that could plausibly have norms, about such things.

  • http://praxtime.com/ Nathan Taylor

    Your last sentence seems both true but (I think perhaps) not framed quite correctly: “Most people decide for themselves without much thought or discussion, assuming incorrectly that relevant norms are obvious enough that everyone else agrees.”

    If you ask people about themselves, agree you’ll get answer above. But if you ask people about others from their in-group I’m less sure what % will say norms are obvious. Depends on the norm. I think the first few in your list above 1-3 may fall into that bucket. Or perhaps going to church as a norm as well (depending on group). Instead they may say they do x in the situation, and by doing x they induce others to be good and follow the same norm. Even if it’s not as obvious to others as to their enlightened selves. I suspect some group of norms for which minor violation is not that big a deal fall into this bucket. Unsure if you’d even disagree with this nuance, since agree with your main point.

    A somewhat related thought. I assume you’re also implying norms become more self enforcing given this innate psychology. That is, the tendency to march step to norms is greater because everyone’s elephant in the brain is ignoring those who are not sure of how to apply unsettled norms, allowing those who are confused to move towards lockstep without visible contention. (about halfway through your elephant in brain book now, so top of mind).

    • Robin Hanson

      Even if they don’t think everyone agrees, they presume that enough others agree that they should follow the norm they see.

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  • https://dndebattbetyg.wordpress.com/ Stefan Schubert

    I probably agree that when it comes to how to follow these kinds of norms, “most people decide for themselves without much thought or discussion, assuming incorrectly that relevant norms are obvious enough that everyone else agrees”.

    In your previous posts on automatic norm-following, you seemed to claim that people are especially unreflective when it comes to norm-following. That is, they are more unreflective and automatic than they are regarding other judgements and decisions.

    But couldn’t some of the examples here be explained by ordinary human cognitive miserliness, combined with our general tendency to choose self-serving options? That is, someone might automatically decide that they don’t need to cite lowbrow papers, partly because they’re cognitive misers, and partly because it suits their ends. That doesn’t seem that different from how we behave in cases which don’t involve the application of norms. E.g., cf someone who quickly and self-servingly rejects a piece of evidence that would have refuted their own hypothesis.

    There might be a fundamental difference between these kinds of cases, though; I haven’t thought about it a lot.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    So, you found all these questions easy? You “know right from wrong” better than I!

    Only in two do I see no serious grounds for different opinions: #6 and #7. These behaviors are directly prohibited by the norm against lying.

  • David Simmons

    I’m not sure how much disagreement there really is here. Here are my answers, let’s see if anyone disagrees. Also, I think you can ask your chair or course coordinator to clarify many of these points (though not 9-14).

    1. It is up to the discretion of the instructor
    2. To be safe one should ask the chair or course coordinator for permission before cancelling any classes (note that they may also be able to find a substitute for you), however I think in most cases it shouldn’t be a problem as long as you are still able to cover all the necessary material
    3. The rules for determining who to give extra help or assignments to must be based on neutral criteria, and it should be possible to do well in the class without any extra help or assignments (or else they are not truly “extra”). Other than that, there is no hard limit
    4. It is up to the discretion of the instructor
    5. It’s not desirable, but it is better described as “being inconsiderate of other instructors/employers who will deal with those students later” rather than “breaking the rules”, and in some circumstances it could be the best possible option
    6. You would need some justification to completely ignore the final exam grades, such as a major error in the exam.
    7. In many grad classes it is expected that all students will get an A as long as they are reasonably completing the course material (and sometimes this means just showing up). It is not good to give a dishonest opinion of someone’s work, regardless of the motivation.
    8. No (I am surprised this is even a question, people are sometimes reprimanded over much more trivial things like lecturing in pajamas)
    9-10. Citation is not about what influenced your work, it’s about who has done work that is sufficiently related to yours that people would want to know about it in order to evaluate how novel your contribution is. (Of course, citation is also used for other purposes like justifying claims. And you can discuss what influenced your work if you want to, but this tends to be seen as a digression.) There is still a judgement call regarding what people would want to know about.
    11. It depends on the wording. You can’t say “X came up with idea Y” if they got it from someone else.
    12. If you can’t justify the inclusion at all except by the referee’s suggestion, they shouldn’t be added
    13. I wouldn’t know, I’m in math where this kind of thing doesn’t come up
    14. Each paper should contain a new idea that isn’t found in previous papers, but it doesn’t have to be a big new idea, and the whole paper doesn’t have to be about the new idea.

    A lot of your questions are starting to stray from being questions about unwritten rules to being questions about professional judgement, and I think it’s reasonable that people disagree on matters of professional judgement and that there isn’t necessarily anyone who can give you a straight answer about them.

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  • David Simmons

    Since it seems my previous comment was deleted for being too long, let me make just one point: it seems that you are conflating issues where there are unwritten rules with matters of professional judgement. I think it is understandable that people disagree about matters of professional judgement, such as whether blog posts should be considered to be eligible for priority in the same way that journal articles are (which I assume is what you are getting at with 9-10). But this is not the kind of thing that people have “automatic norms” reactions to as described in your previous post. And the kinds of things that people do have such reactions to, such as #8, don’t seem to be the kinds of things where there is much disagreement.

  • https://dndebattbetyg.wordpress.com/ Stefan Schubert

    I probably agree that when it comes to how to follow these kinds of norms, “most people decide for themselves without much thought or discussion, assuming incorrectly that relevant norms are obvious enough that everyone else agrees”.

    In your previous posts on automatic norm-following, you seemed to claim that people are especially unreflective when it comes to norm-following. That is, they are more unreflective and automatic than they are regarding other judgements and decisions.

    But couldn’t some of the examples here be explained by ordinary human cognitive miserliness, combined with our general tendency to choose self-serving options? That is, someone might automatically decide that they don’t need to cite lowbrow papers, partly because they’re cognitive misers, and partly because it suits their ends.

    That doesn’t seem that different from how we behave in cases which don’t involve the application of norms to the same extent. E.g., cf someone who quickly and self-servingly rejects a piece of evidence that would have refuted their own hypothesis.

    There might be a fundamental difference between these kinds of cases, though; I haven’t thought about it a lot.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      I take Hanson to be saying that we imagine nonexistent norms. These often restrict our self-interested choices.

      [However, I don’t understand why the meta-norm that norms should be applied reflexively implies that we see nonexistent norms, which seems orthogonal to their automaticity. I also think it would be useful to disclose what the differences of opinion are on, maybe for a couple of issues. Did someone actually think he/she violates no norms by telling mediocrities that they are brilliant?]