The following report was originally written in October 1999 for North and East Devon Health Authority's 'Health Forum'; a local response to the Government's white paper "Our Healthier Nation". Within the Health Forum, separate groups were set up to tackle relevant areas. This report was written for the Accident Prevention Task Group, of which I am a member.

Breaking the rules: Why do people behave in the way they do?

In the following summary I will try to briefly explain some of the main themes that answer this question and how we can try to convince people to keep to the rules to ensure their own safety and that of those around them.


Human behaviour is largely constrained by the rules that govern particular situations and environments. We are constantly obliged to behave in a particular way, or to avoid certain behaviours. These rules may be formal regulations such as laws, or they may be informal rules of 'social etiquette', which are not written down but are implicit within the situation itself.

'Moral' rules exist to safeguard our own welfare, and the welfare and the rights of other people around us, whereas others, 'social-conventional' rules, merely exist in order that our system can continue to operate with as little conflict as possible. This fundamental distinction concerns the perceived consequences of rule violations for other people; why does a particular rule exist? We must differentiate here between moral rules and social-conventional rules (eg: Smetana, 1981). Transgressions of moral rules result in direct infringements of people's rights and welfare. For example, we have formal laws forbidding assault and theft, and informal rules about not cheating on one's partner or shouting unwarranted verbal insults. Social-conventional transgressions are considered to be less serious. They violate the arbitrary and agreed-upon conventions that co-ordinate the behaviour of individuals within social systems; for example, failing to make a tax return, TV licence evasion or talking to yourself in public places. There is strong evidence (eg: Smetana, 1985) that children are able to distinguish between these types of transgression from an early age and throughout early adulthood, and that moral transgressions are considered far more serious than infringements of social-conventional rules.

In general, moral transgressions trigger one of the 'moral emotions'; guilt, shame, remorse or empathy (eg: Blair, 1995). These emotions act as internal 'cues' to prevent future transgressions. Social-conventional transgressions do not directly initiate these internal emotional cues, but depend on the threat of legal punishment or social disapproval to maintain appropriate behaviour.

In general, if people adhere to the rules, then any system will work smoothly, every individual will co-operate with one another, and everyone's welfare will be ensured. After all, this is why the rules exist. However, people don't always keep to the rules. 'Accidents' happen, generally because a rule has been broken somewhere along the line. Breaking a rule reduces the safety margins that rules inherently provide, and increases the likelihood of an 'accident'. Frequently this rule-breaking behaviour is not the result of a deliberate act, but is committed without conscious intent. What causes this behaviour, and how can it be prevented?

Attitudes vs behaviour

Attitudes have generally been considered as 'steering' behaviour in some fairly concrete way. Traditionally, it is thought that if you change someone's attitudes, then their behaviour will also change to fall in line with those changes. However, although there is evidence showing that this approach can work (eg: Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), it has been suggested that it is not often the case, and even when it is, those changes in behaviour are not as great as one would expect (Howarth, 1988). In addition, there is a problem in measuring attitudes - the attitudes that an individual claims to support are only true at the moment that they are requested. A large number of factors will affect those stated attitudes. Consider a Fire Officer asking a youth about their attitude towards smoking in bed, after they have just attended a talk on the dangers of domestic fires. Can we assume that this measure is accurate and likely to predict behaviour? It is unlikely, and although this is an extreme example, the same effects can be seen whenever a measure of attitude is taken.


An attitude is essentially a 'behavioural intention'; how we would like to behave at the time that we are asked. The trouble is that there are a huge variety of things that stop us from behaving in the way we say we would like to behave. One of the strongest influences is habit (Ronis, Yates & Kirscht, 1989; Ouellette & Woods, 1998); how we have always behaved in the past when a particular set of circumstances has arisen. We may think that smoking in bed after a few beers is potentially dangerous, but if that is what we have always done when we get home from a night out, then we will continue to do so regardless. Throughout our lives, habits form the strongest basis for predicting behaviour (see Verplanken & Aarts, in press).

Why do habits form?

Humans have only a limited cognitive capacity (Miller, 1956); we can only think about a certain number of things at a time. The less thought that goes into our day-to-day lives, the better. As a result of this, we have adapted the way in which we use this finite capacity. Habits enable us to deal with situations that we have encountered before (and possibly had to think about quite carefully), without expending too much of that precious cognitive capacity. We don't have to think particularly hard about what we are doing; we don't have to pay too much attention to our environment or to our actions. We can think about other, more important things, while still being able to live our day-to-day lives.

How do habits form?

Over a period of time, we learn to behave in a particular way when we encounter a set of circumstances that we recognise. There is evidence that suggests that habits start off as 'implementation intentions' (Gollwitzer, 1993), or decisions that state, "when X happens, I will do Y". For example, "When I have got home from a night out, got undressed and into bed, and before I turn the light out, I will smoke a cigarette", or "When I get home from work, I will slump in front of the TV all evening or go to the gym or take my wife and kids to the cinema". These implementation intentions are likely to be strongly influenced by our personality, as it is our personality traits that dictate how we perceive the world around us and how we react to the things that we experience. This is particularly true of habits that involve rule-breaking behaviour.

The effects of personality

To the majority of the population, the transgression of a rule generally has an implicit aversiveness that prohibits acts of rule violation (Lykken, 1995). We don't break rules because it 'doesn't feel right' to do so. Some elements of personality can determine whether we will break rules or not, particularly when the moral/social-conventional distinction is taken into consideration (Burgess, 1996).

We all have urges to do certain things, to behave in a particular way that might involve breaking rules. The personality characteristics that determine these urges would predict behaviour very well if no rules existed to constrain our behaviour - the situation involves no rules, there is nobody to get hurt and no price to pay for rule transgressions. If we are certain that there will be none of these negative consequences, we might engage in the kind of behaviour modern society considers to be antisocial and illegal.

Assuming that an individual has the urge to behave in such a way, this is where a second set of personality characteristics becomes important. These traits will determine how likely an individual is to consider themselves bound by the rules. Some people will follow the rules to the letter, some will follow only those rules that they consider legitimate and justified, and a very small proportion will not abide by any rule that prevents them from achieving their goals. Using pen-and-paper personality scales it is possible to predict, with a fair degree of accuracy, how an individual will perceive the rules and how likely they will be to abide by them.

However, all this assumes that we are conscious of the rule-breaking behaviours that we are engaging in, and are able to think logically and rationally about it. The trouble is that the existence of a habit will prevent this logical, rational process from taking place. Simply recognising certain elements of our environment will trigger our habitual response and we won't think about our subsequent behaviour any further.

Habits can become established quite early in life and, as described earlier, personality characteristics may have a large part to play in determining the nature of these habits. However, certain elements of personality change as we get older, especially those elements that determine our drives and urges. Once a habit is established it will determine our behaviour, even though the initial motivations for that behaviour may no longer exist. The fact that the behaviour is 'automatic' means that even if we are breaking rules, we can largely ignore those transgressions because we are no longer 'in control' of those behaviours.

What effects do habits have?

One of the fundamental reasons that we develop these habits is to reduce the amount of information in our environment that we need to attend to in order to decide how to behave. As a result, we are able to do more things, or more complex things, and most of the time we can do them successfully. However, we tend to generalise the circumstances in which we engage in these habitual behaviours. In other words, we miss things in the environment, 'external cues', that might tell us that the habitual behaviour is not appropriate in that specific set of circumstances. In addition, the behaviours we engage in become less complex and varied, as we ignore the 'fine detail' of situations and as a result end up with a limited number of rigid patterns of behaviour that are resistant to change. This increases the likelihood that the behaviour we choose will be inappropriate, simply because we are not taking all of the environmental and situational information into account before we act.


It is likely that we will establish a collection of habitual responses to a variety elements in the environment. We can describe this set of habits as a 'mind-set' (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1996). This mind-set will direct our conscious attention only towards particular types of relevant information in the environment. For example, when someone is considering a choice of goals, a 'deliberative' mind-set may be activated that comprises an open mind for new information and promotes relatively objective information processing - in other words, we are thinking; "How do I sort this one out then?". However, an 'implemental' mind-set will focus attention on particular information regarding where, when and how to act, and is characterised by closed-mindedness, or; "I know what to do - let's get on with it". Once a behavioural act is initiated, an 'actional' mind-set will focus the individual's attention exclusively on aspects of the self and environment that sustain that behaviour; in other words, they will be thinking something like, "This bit goes there, and then I do that". Recent research (Verplanken, Aarts, van Knippenberg, & Moonen, A.; 1998) has suggested that a habitual mind-set may enhance the perceptual readiness for habit-related cues, and prevent the individual from being distracted and adopting other, less efficient courses of action. This mind-set acts as a kind of enduring 'default' cognitive orientation that is inherently associated with the habitual behaviour, although it may be present all the time, and not only during the time that a habitual action is actually executed.

The upshot of all this is that when we find ourselves in a familiar environment, it is very likely that we will think and behave in a habitual, preordained way, without looking around us for unexpected elements of the environment. This will obviously leave us open to making errors of judgement in our behaviour, which may have serious consequences for our safety, and that of those around us.

How do we stop inappropriate habits from forming?

There is very little that can be done to persuade the small percentage of the population that will not abide by the rules regardless of the consequences. However, some rules are broken by a large proportion of the population, due to the way in which those rules are commonly perceived. The rules' legitimacy and the justification for abiding by those rules should be emphasised in the strongest possible way. Highlighting the negative consequences for other people ('moral' basis for the rules) will reinforce this justification, and make compliance more likely. It is important to emphasise other people's rights and welfare, because otherwise it is only the individual's personal safety that is at risk. Personal safety is inherently nobody else's business but our own, and therefore if someone imposes rules on us 'for our own safety', we are likely to feel patronised and ignore them. If someone wants to risk their own safety, then why shouldn't they? However, in threatening the welfare of other people, the rule transgression emerges from the 'personal' sphere into the 'public' sphere, thus becoming subject to the legitimate concerns of others (see Verkuyten, 1992; Verkuyten, Roodpijpers, Elffers & Hessing, 1994). Emphasising the effects of particular rule transgressions on others makes those transgressions more aversive, and therefore less likely.

Because habits are formed fairly quickly as a result of experience of a particular environment or set of circumstances, it is important to introduce the moral justification for the relevant rules from the moment the individual enters the new environment or experiences the new set of circumstances for the first time. In the majority of cases, this means as early as possible in the life of the individual.

How can we change existing habits?

Again, by emphasising the moral justification of particular rules we can make compliance more likely. Furthermore, we can counteract the effects of the mind-set by deliberately drawing attention towards elements of the environment that might otherwise have been considered irrelevant and ignored. Drawing attention to specific safety-related elements can counteract the deficiencies in our cognitive capacity by providing the basis for new, safer habits. After a time, these habits will require no more conscious attention than the inappropriate ones, but will reduce the likelihood that rules will be broken and consequently reduce the risk to the individual.

Obviously the specifics of each rule and situation will dictate exactly how this is achieved, but the theme is consistent. People ignore vital information in the environment which, if taken into consideration, could cause them to question their habitual responses. Given a strong enough argument in favour of change, reminders in the environment and perhaps some form of additional incentive, people's inappropriate habits can be changed, and more appropriate behaviours take their place.

Cris Burgess BSc (Hons) MSc

School of Psychology

University of Exeter

Perry Road, Exeter, EX4 4QG



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