We all push the boundaries and cut corners, whether it’s using our cellphone while driving, jaywalking, wearing a mask under our nose or chin, or some other transgression.

These minor behavioral violations never make the headlines. Yet even these small infractions can, cumulatively, cause extensive damage to society — with life or death consequences. For example, if no one wears their mask properly, COVID-19 could spread unabated, endangering countless lives.

How can society crack down on these behaviors? More frequent enforcement requires more resources like security cameras. More severe punishment for such infractions may lead to public opposition. There’s no good option, yet decision-makers often opt for more severe punishments — such as the heavy penalty in Israel for not wearing a mask. This approach is consistent with classic economic theories that the severity of the punishment is the most important factor when it comes to deterrence.

New research from the Technion, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) show that the opposite is true; the most effective method is frequent mild punishments. The study, published in PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was led by Assistant Professor Kinneret Teodorescu from the Technion Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, conducted with faculty colleague Assistant Professor Ori Plonsky, Professor Shahar Ayal from Reichman University, and Professor Rachel Barkan from Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Previous studies on violation of guidelines and deceit have mainly examined the impact of internal aspects of morality and norms. These studies typically focused on laboratory experiments in which participants are given the opportunity to cheat once or twice but are not given feedback on the results of their cheating and experience no external enforcement. However, this is not how things work in the real world, as decision-makers — and the public — want to reduce repeated violations that ultimately harm us all.

The research by Prof. Teodorescu and her colleagues investigates the effect of external enforcement on behavior over time. It focused on a comparison between two different policies: frequent enforcement of mild punishments and infrequent severe punishment.

The study included several trials in which participants were given many opportunities to report a false result and make more money. In the first stage, the answer was not verified, and there was no enforcement. In the second stage, the participants were told that their answers would be randomly sampled and verified, and they would be fined for each detected false answer. A policy of high enforcement frequency with small fines was implemented in one group, and for the other group, a low enforcement frequency with high fines.

According to Prof. Teodorescu, “In all the experiments we found that a higher frequency of mild punishments decreased the rate of violation much more effectively than low frequency of severe punishment. The gap was especially large among high offenders — participants who even from the first stage, with no enforcement, tended to commit more violations. Moreover, this trend was maintained even when the participants were told how much the fine was in advance and were not told the frequency of enforcement — which simulates many real-life situations.”

These findings are consistent with current theories on experience-based decision-making. The assumption is that when we make the decision of whether to commit a behavioral violation, we ‘recall’ a small number of past experiences in which we were tempted to commit a violation and the outcome of our decision in these cases. Since a small number of experiences does not typically include rare events, most of the time the sample we rely on in our decision-making process will only include common occurrences. In other words, the initial deterrence of a heavy punishment wears off quickly because it is soon forgotten.

To reduce the recurrence of undesirable behaviors, it is important to create a connection between the violation and the punishment, through frequent enforcement rather than rare, severe punishment. For example, it is enough for any person who does not wear a mask properly to receive frequent mild punishments — perhaps a small fine and maybe just a warning — to change their behavior.

In fact, the results of the study indicate that when the frequency of enforcement is very low (less than 10% of violations), just increasing enforcement frequency by as little as several percent points is enough to achieve a drastic reduction in violations. Therefore, according to the researchers, it would be good if policymakers channel resources towards increasing the frequency of enforcement rather than towards stricter punishments.

Prof. Teodorescu recommends that parents, educators, and other parties respond to violations even if they are not dramatic, knowing that even a moderate response will facilitate behavioral change if it occurs frequently.

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