Drivers vs. Pedestrians: A case study of social norms


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Social norms and institutions have been the subject of several blogs by me and others on the Social Evolution Forum. Understanding how social norms are maintained and, especially, how they change (see, e.g., the post by Bernard Winograd) is a central issue of social evolution.

I have been thinking about this issue during my sojourns in Frankfurt and Moscow, with norms governing interactions between drivers and pedestrians as a specific example. These norms vary dramatically between countries, and even regions within countries. In New York City, for example, pedestrians pay no attention to traffic lights – you check the traffic and cross the street. In Seattle, on the other hand, you are not supposed to do that, and cops will actually write you a ticket for jaywalking (at least, they did in the 1980s, when I did my post-doc there).

In Germany pedestrians are very disciplined and will wait to cross the street until they get the green light – even if there is no traffic. For somebody raised in New York (and many other places outside of Germanic countries), this feels really weird, and even unnatural. I noticed that many tourists crossed illegally, with natives looking upon such ‘antisocial behavior’ disapprovingly. Frankfurt is not a big tourist destination, but I wonder whether the norm prohibiting jaywalking is sustainable in cities where the majority of pedestrians are foreigners. Theoretically, if enough people disregard a norm, it should collapse.

Then there are norms regulating when drivers should yield to pedestrians. In many countries, including Russia, pedestrians have the right of way on zebra-crossings. But, as we all know well, just having a law on the books doesn’t mean that it is actually followed. When I again started visiting Russia regularly in the 1990s, I noticed with dismay that drivers paid no attention to pedestrians trying to cross a street. Using zebra crossings became a deadly game of the Russian roulette (sorry about the cliché).

When asked, my friends offered several explanations. One obvious possibility was that the behavior of drivers simply reflected the general unraveling of cooperative norms that accompanied the civilizational and societal collapse of the Soviet Union. Another explanation was that the 1990s were the first decade when the Russians began using automobiles massively, and the norms of civilized behavior simply had not had a chance to spread though the population of new drivers. The third one pointed to the influx of drivers from the North- and Trans-Caucasian republics (then, as now, most taxi drivers in Moscow came from that region), who brought a different set of norms with them.

A more general (ultimate, rather than proximate) explanation is suggested by recent theoretical research on the evolution of cooperation. Cooperative equilibria tend to be fragile, and can collapse in no time at all. A more interesting and difficult question is how we can go from a noncooperative equilibrium to a cooperative equilibrium. This is where the story gets interesting.

During the early 2000s, drivers gradually started treating pedestrians more considerately. This trend became very noticeable last time I was in Moscow, a week ago. Now when you come to a zebra crossing drivers routinely stop for you (a major exception, however, is zebra crossings across very busy roads with four or more lanes). This seems to be a true equilibrium, because all players expect drivers to stop for pedestrians. This includes other drivers, which is important because previously a major worry was that if you stop at a zebra, you could be hit from behind by another car that did not expect you to do it. Pedestrians now start crossing fairly confidently, whereas during the 1990s they behaved like deer during the hunting season. And even cops started enforcing the law, which is probably the most amazing development, given how notoriously corrupt the road police are in Russia.

It’s interesting to speculate how this positive change came about. A part of the explanation is that there were several well-publicized cases of drivers killing pedestrians on zebra walks. Two years ago a law was passed that required drivers to stop when a pedestrian approached a zebra crossing (previously they were required to stop only when someone was already crossing). But while this is undoubtedly part of the story, I feel that laws by themselves are insufficient; there must also be a cultural change that enables laws to become effective.

I queried my local informants and I heard a similar story from three independent sources. Basically, the claim is that this is a case of cultural diffusion of social norms from European countries, carried by Russians who visit them as tourists and businessmen. One of my friends related to me the story of how he was driving in Germany several years ago, and habitually did not stop for pedestrians at a zebra crossing. He particularly noted how those people looked at him as he was whizzing by.

Humans are very good both at conveying the information that a norm is being violated, and are also very sensitive to receiving such signals. Maintaining cooperative norms is much easier if signals are sent to norm violators by third parties. In Moscow now pedestrians expect cars to stop for them, and they will look pointedly at those who don’t do so. This bodes well for the stability of the new cooperative equilibrium. Additionally, while cops should fine violators, my guess is that it is more important that society at large clearly expresses its disapproval of norm violators. We have a legal speed limit of 65 mph on highways in the United States, yet despite millions of tickets handed out, the majority in the state where I live drives at around 80 mph. There is simply no social stigma associated with driving above the speed limit.

The observation that sometimes cooperative norms spread is heartening, but in reality we don’t have a general understanding of how we can flip the society to a cooperative equilibrium. Perhaps the new science of cultural evolution will eventually help us to answer this question!

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