Institutional licence: when we trust what authority does, not what it says

A notable phenomenon in Britain right now is the desire of a lot of people to keep going to the pub (and using the tube, and so on).

And yet the government’s chief scientific adviser has given a very clear signal:

At first glance, this might seem to be explained by one of the better known behavioural heuristics: social norms. This says that we copy what other people do. If we think everyone else is still going to the pub despite Boris Johnson’s warnings, we will pop in for a pint too.

But a different kind of heuristic has started to become visible in the current crisis. We might call it institutional licence. It says: if an organisation in authority is allowing you to do something, it must be OK.

In the current context this means: if the tubes are running, it must be OK to take them. If the pubs are open, it must be OK to go. The hidden reasoning behind it? "if it was that bad, they would have closed them down, so it can’t be that bad."

We have seen this effect recently in research on sustainability and consumer behaviour. Consumers take many of their cues about environmentally conscious behaviour from retailers. They tell us, for instance, that if a supermarket is still offering food in plastic packaging, then it must be OK to buy it. This seems to reflect a combination of:

  • Trust: retailers are seen as authority figures who know what they are doing

  • Lack of knowledge and confidence: consumers are unsure how big an impact their own choices make, or how bad it really is to throw away another piece of plastic

  • A failure of coordination: individual consumers might want to use less plastic but they know it won’t make a difference unless everyone else stops too

Consumers are effectively outsourcing a part of their moral judgement to the institutions they interact with.

This is why, when people hear Boris Johnson say we should stop going to the pub or the theatre, but he doesn’t close them down, they don’t pay attention.

There is a risk that he inadvertently proves the “behavioural fatigue” hypothesis right: even though traffic in pubs, restaurants and theatres is way down right now, if they remain open throughout this episode people will almost certainly drift back, taking their cue from that same narrative: “if it was that bad, they would close them down wouldn’t they?”

Economist readers may point out that there is a second effect overlapping with this: simple self-interest. People may just want to go to the pub, and be willing to treat the risk of spreading coronavirus as an externality – a cost that someone else bears – just like plastic waste or carbon emissions in everyday life. Undoubtedly that is part of the effect. In an economic analysis, this might explain, in part, people’s behaviour – but it would not accurately explain how they think about it.

Institutional licence is not just about the behaviour itself, but the moral justification – which has deeper consequences. I suspect most of the people in the pubs would not admit – to you or to themselves – that they are deliberately putting others at risk for their own entertainment. Instead, they would enter into motivated reasoning: the risk can’t be that high or they would have banned it. Therefore I’m not really putting anyone at risk. Therefore I’m not being selfish at all.

As much as we rightly value liberty and self-reliance, this effect shows the risk in relying on people to use their own judgement: it is very hard for them to calibrate. If the cost of a judgement is mostly borne by the person making it – for instance, running across the street in front of a bus – we will probably make reasonably good choices. But if the costs are borne by others – or even by ourselves, in the future, such as in decisions about pensions – it is extremely difficult to get it right. So we trust government, supermarkets or employers to have thought it through on our behalf.

This creates an additional layer of responsibility for the government. People will pay attention to what you do, not what you say. If you allow them to keep going out, a lot of them will. If that is a decision consciously taken in knowledge of the political risks, fair enough. If not, it will not be good enough in a month’s time to blame the pub-goers for being irresponsible. They were only doing what you (implicitly) told them to.

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