Following rules makes you stupid

Salon Signs

Salon is running an article by Linda Baker about a new line of thinking in traffic design that lets people govern themselves. The idea is a bit counter-intuitive, but the article explains it well. The basic concept is that when you have no rules and as little division between roadway, sidewalk, and common area as possible, transportation can actually be safer than with more rules. As the article states, “It sounds insane, but it works.”

While I’m intrigued by the idea, I’m not writing to advocate traffic law reform. Rather, it was a greater idea behind this new school of traffic design. The idea is that people will act in according to the responsibility and freedom they are given.

This idea is articulated in the article by urban designer Hamilton-Baillie: “The more you post the evidence of legislative control, such as traffic signs, the less the driver is trying to use his or her own senses.”

This is not a new idea. Stripping people of their individuality to encourage obedience and efficiency has been practiced by the military for centuries (it’s part of the reason new recruits have their heads shaved and are often forced to carry out meaningless tasks without opportunity to question their superiors).

This same phenomenon can be found, to varying degrees, in government and private corporations. I once ordered a sandwich at a local Tim Horton’s and was told they were out of bread. Seeing that they had bagels, I asked if I could just have the sandwich on a bagel. This request was met with blank stares that suggested an inner-dialog along these lines of “We don’t make bagel-sandwiches” or “There’s no button for that on the cash register”.

Had this sad employee been at home with a hankering for sandwich, some ham, and a bagel, I can only assume they would be able to put the ingredients together. Instead, they were worrying about how my simple request fit into their basic regiment.

I’ve always been bothered by organizations where people are no empowered to use their common sense. However, until I read Linda Baker’s article, I hadn’t considered that it may be even worse than it appears. When governed too tightly by rules, people forsake their own common-sense and offload their decision making process onto the system that governs them.

Perhaps this should be an amendment to Garrity’s Law of Inverse Congregational Intelligence.


12 thoughts on “Following rules makes you stupid

  1. I don’t know. Have the “common sensers” driven in downtown Paris or in South America or the third world. There are no signs and everyone maximizes their own interest to the injury of those around them. Off-loading decision making in an unnatural process like hurtling down an asphalt strip in a steel cage-ish box at 110 km an hour amongst and opposing others dowing the same thing is not quite like making a sandwich. Spend a day in first appearance criminal court or family court before you are certain that people will act in according to the responsibility and freedom they are given.

  2. Alan, read the article – it deals with several of your points (including the un-natural activity of moving at over 20Mph).

    As for spending a day in criminal court (which I have not done), the rules and regulations didn’t stop these people from doing what they did.

  3. Once, back in my college days, I had a Domino’s Pizza employee tell me that I couldn’t get a medium pizza because they were “out of medium”. Meaning, I could only suppose, that they were out of medium-sized pizza-shaped chunks of dough…

  4. Abe, not quite the same thing as your experience, but I once witnessed a befuddled man order a “medium coke” at Wendy’s, only to be told they don’t have “medium”.

    The employee didn’t bother to explain the alternatives (“small”, “biggie”, and “great biggie”), nor did they translate his “normal human request” into “wendyspeak” (where “medium = biggie”).

    Could I “use” more “quotes”?!

  5. Situation: My friend gets her finger shut in the car door leading to much pain and agony. I run to a Starbucks a few stores down.

    Me: Can I have some ice!

    Barrista: Wait in line.

    Me: It’s an emergency!

    Barrista: Oh! What size?

    Me: !@$%! ah… Grande!

  6. You might want to pick-up a copy of James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. It has some similar examples of how aggregate behavior optimizes if individuals follow their own thoughts when making decisions as opposed to following enforced rules (e.g. walking on crowded sidewalks rarely results in a collision).

  7. Steven, Wendy’s has kids, small, regular and biggie for pop. Fries come in small, regular, biggie and great biggie.

    In Halifax I worked part time at Wendy’s and when some one asked for a medium we would place the order for a regular. This employee must have been new and could not locate a medium button on the register.

  8. I totally agree with the original point.
    In my department where i work, Free will and natural thinking are, not only disencouraged they repeatedly stripped from you.
    I have much sympathy for the newly/down trodden employee from the Wendys story as it sounds like she has been or is currently the middle of being opressed by “Managment Material” whos purpose is only that to opress.

    In my particular case the use of buzz words and a blameless attitude and a lack of belief in the people they hired (i could go on) press home the idea of following the “correct” way of acting and approching people in the same way is driven in on a daily basis.

    A lessened rule driven way would allow people to use inniative and actually grow as people.

    Thankyou messrs Tas**r / Ber***k

  9. I wonder how long it would take to un-learn us North Americans of all our bad driving habits. Or is that learn good habits?

    I have a theory. It may require an addendum to Garrity’s Law. It’s the parking lot chaos theory. The parking lot at our store here used to NOT have any yellow/orange lines on the ground indicating how orderly & efficient parking should take shape. Do you think that the humans could use their reasoning skills to determine order? It was a mash-up. Just short of complete grid lock.
    Once the lines were drawn, like cattle, the masses filed in an orderly fashion (for the most part). Remarkable experiment. Somewhat refuting Hamilton-Baillie’s ideas.
    BUT, I think it’s a parking lot thing. Next time you go to the mall – watch. The goal seems to be: Take as few steps as possible. How close to the door can I get. This revealed itself to me when I discovered the guy with the fake handicap parking tag, so he could get the ‘good’ spot at the mall, while he went there for his WALKING club. Go figger.

  10. One of my marketing profs at university told about a friend of his going to Swiss Chalet, and ordering take out.

    The employee said “sorry sir, we are closed for take out orders for the night.”

    The man said “but I see that those guys back there are cooking up a storm, and those guys there are taking packages out the door for deliveries. So you’re closed for take out but not for delivery?”


    “OK, then, could you deliver this order to my car parked right outside the door?”

    “Oh, sure, we could do that, but we can’t do take out.”

  11. I think everyone of you are dumbasses. People don’t need to follow rules! Everyone in the world is connected through complex independence indirectly through globalization. This means that people understand each other and are willing to cooperate to maximize their own ambitious endeveours. So, i think you all know what i mean: If i wanted to get shit on, I would make dutch porn, so you can all shit on someone else!!!

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