Do laws change behaviour?

Jonathan Mills
4 min readMar 5, 2023

When my son was in his early teenage years, he didn’t really manage to keep his room clean, especially when it came to dirty washing which just formed a pile of clothes in the middle of the floor. No amount of “laying down the law” saw any improvement — the pile just grew daily, so we closed his door. One day, I sat down with him to explain to him the consequences of this practice, saying: “When clothing gets to the wash basket, we have a turn-around time of 24 hours and your clothing miraculously will get to the foot of your bed, all folded and ironed. That’s my responsibility. Your responsibility is to get the clothing to the wash basket.”

He agreed — he did nothing! The pile grew. Early one Saturday morning, while I was still sleeping in a little, I got this hand on my shoulder to wake me up. It was my son and he said: “Dad, I need some hockey socks.” I answered, rather gruffly: “You have three pairs of hockey socks.” “I know,” he replied, “but they are all dirty.” I answered: “Did the system break down during the week? It didn’t, so you have three options: Firstly, you can go with dirty socks to your hockey match, but I will not drive you to the school. Secondly, you can go with no socks, and I will take you (not such a cool option, as he would get ridiculed by his peers). Thirdly, you can go with other coloured socks, and I will take you (also not a cool option as this would not fit in with the school uniform).” He muttered under his breath and started walking with dirty socks — I went back to sleep.

So, how did his behaviour change enabling him to become a responsible man today? He fell in love! Somehow being in this relationship which required respect for another person was sufficient motivation to get the clothes to the wash basket and his room became spotless overnight. No more nagging or threatening was needed!

Now, while many social scientists believe that laws do change behaviour and many other researchers do not believe the same, it seems that other factors play a role in forming behaviour patterns in people. What the law does do, however, is the flowing:

  1. It provides a nudge — it suggests to you what is deemed to be right (or good for you) and what is wrong (or bad for you and others). In a regulation to mitigate obesity and given to retailers (much to their disgust and protestation), candies were not allowed to be displayed at checkout counters and fruit had to be displayed at eye level. This resulted in a massive shift in buying patterns in some areas as people were too lazy to leave the counter and go back into the store to fetch their favourite candy before paying for their goods. Obesity and eating junk food persists, however, as people find alternative ways of doing their shopping.
  2. It creates a fear of retribution and punishment — it makes you think twice perhaps before stepping out of line. For some, the threat of punishment outweighs the reward, so they refrain from acting on impulse or planning an activity that would be outside the boundaries of the law.
  3. It reveals the amount of mental health issues that exist — in various studies on criminality, researchers have found that just less than two thirds of criminals have some mental illness or another. There seems to be a huge need to address the mental health of nations.

In most parts of the world, the orange (yellow) traffic light warns that the light is going to change to red and that motorists should slow down. It seems to have the adverse effect, however, as most motorists speed up. The logic, conversely, suggests that consideration for other motorists and pedestrians means that you slow down — not many use this logic unfortunately.

Motivation to behave well seems to be tied to one’s attitude, beliefs, values, and levels of self-esteem. Those who believe in the dignity of the human being and have compassion on the human condition are less likely to harm others or steal from them. These values-driven people offer respect and are kind. They “do to others how they would like to be treated”. They shun selfishness and focus on care for others. Their heart guides their behaviour, not greed.

Part of the problem with misbehaviour is poor leadership — in parents, schoolteachers, company management, and even country presidents. Where the environment of corruption, selfishness, greed, and malice exists, others follow suit. When leaders demonstrate excellence, focus on development, set examples of integrity that others can follow, and share a picture of a better and more inclusive future, their followership grows, and people start aspiring to greatness.

Changes of heart are caught, not taught by the law.

Originally published at https://www.stretchforgrowth.com on March 5, 2023.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.