Mr Shah was at his mother-in-law’s house for a dinner during one of the Indian festivals, and what a sumptuous spread she has put on the table for him (and obviously for other guests also)! The golden brown roasted chicken; homemade sweets and other desserts; and everything exactly the way he likes it. Everyone at the party is delighted. The festivities continue into the late afternoon. Mr Shah loosens his belt and started sipping a glass of wine. Gazing across the table at his mother-in-law, he rises to his feet and pulls out his wallet. “Mummy ji, for all the love you’ve put into this, how much do I owe you?” He says sincerely (and also under the influence of alcohol!). As silence descends on the gathering, he has a handful of bills. “Do you think three thousand rupees will do it? No, wait, I should give you five thousand bucks!”
What happens next? A glass of wine falls over; his mother-in-law stands up red-faced; his father-in-law shoots him an angry look; and his own son burst into tears. Next year’s same party celebration, it seems, may be a close, or rather frozen dinner on the family dinner table (huh!).
This is one of the scenes I fondly remember from a movie I watched recently. But, this is not uncommon, is it? Let me, no, let’s all think why an offer for direct payment for such a nice dinner put such a damper on the party? Referring what Margaret Clark, Judson Mills, and Alan Fiske said in this context a long time ago, the answer to this question is that we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rule. The social norms include the friendly requests that people make of one another; instant reciprocity is not required in such cases. On the other hand, in the environment where market norms rule, you have to do the exchanges – pay wages, prices, rents, interests, etc. Both are right at their respective places.
When we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life hums along pretty well, but when social and market norms collide, trouble set in. The present case sets the background in the same context. It discusses, in an educational institute, when fine for any incorrect action by students, is imposed, why we fail to obtain the desired outcomes!
We live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships. Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges violates the social norms and hurts the relationships.
Let me come to the point. This is the case of an organisation I was once associated with. That was, I should better say, that is an educational institution offering a handful of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Since the location of the institute is very odd, especially for the UG students who just entered the college life and were very much interested in bunking the classes and having fun of one kind or another.
The college is located far out of the town, in a countryside, and once a student enters the college premises, it would be almost impossible for him to go back before the college hours ends; this is so because of two reasons: first, the college administration does not allow the students leave college amidst classes, and second, even if students got a day-leave anyhow, it is almost impossible to get a transport that would carry them to the township. Situation was worse for those who do not have their own vehicles, and most of the students fall under this category. To avoid this situation, students tend to skip the college for the whole day.
When this trend began to result into low attendance of students in the college, the administration decided to impose a fine of Rs 50 for one day absent. The fine was also applicable for those who reported more than half an hour late. The college administration was expecting an improvement in students’ attendance after this ruling.
But after a few weeks of this ruling, they were astonished to see that the rule was not working in their favour, (and more shocking was that they didn’t realise that in fact it had long-term negative effects.) Why??
Before the fine was introduced, the students had a social contact with their college, with social norms of being late or skipping altogether. Thus, if they were being late – as occasionally they were – they felt guilty about it – and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in reporting for their class next time. Somewhat similar story was there in case of not reporting to the college at all. Earlier they did not come to the college only when they felt it necessary for some other issues, such as celebrating their friend’s birthday at a city café, or enjoying a movie with the group once a month and so on. They felt the need to skip the college and next day they felt guilty about it (obviously, not in all the cases!)
But once the fine was imposed, the college administration had inadvertently replaced the social norms with the market norms. Now the students were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or skip the college or not, and they frequently choose the former i.e. being late or skipping the college altogether. They started doing so for small pretexts such as getting up late that morning, missing the college bus, some minor issue in family and so on. Also, for some of the students, coming to the college costs more than Rs 50 a day, hence they calculated the cost-and-benefits (remember the most important rule of the market norm!) of not coming to the college and choose to be absent for the day (which was also economically correct; they could now save some 80-100% of their money that was earlier spent on travelling costs, after paying the fine for one-day absence); this was apart from the time spent on travelling to the college.
Imagine a situation where a student from a remote location came to the college using public transport, and got stuck in heavy office hour traffic, consequently got late by an hour for the college. Given the administrative ruling for such situation, he had most likelihood of being not granted permission to attend classes for the day. How he would have felt at that time!! So, it would be far better for him to not coming to the college altogether and pay the fine next day.
This situation could be attributed to the mixing of the social norms with the market norms. Students were not turning up to the college too frequently and that too only for a modest fine of Rs 50. Needless to say, this was not what the college administration intended.
These are just few explanations of this phenomena; more issues can be examined with the help of proper diagnosis. Students’ behaviour in an educational institution is very important issue to be monitored, as the overall academic performance of the institute depends on this factor only; this becomes more critical for an educational institute that is affiliated to a university and has to maintain its performance ranking among the other affiliated colleges. More concentrated efforts can be devoted to understand the students’ behaviour in educational institutions context.
* This case is solely for information purpose. Please note that some of the materials presented here are under copyright, so do not use it without permission.