The existence of societal restrictions and seemingly illogic norms is at first glance rather baffling, but can in fact be explained through the terminology of game theory. Despite the diversity existing between these norms, the universal aspect among them is that they serve to impose a set of rules upon an individual. They offer them an implicit guide to achieving social acceptance and gratification.
In fact, the inception of such restrictions can likely be attributed to the pervasive existence of a prisoner’s dilemma in human interaction. Society functions much like a prisoner’s dilemma in that mutual cooperation is collectively preferable, while individual deviance benefits the individual to the detriment of the masses, and widespread deviance eventuates in societal dysfunction. Thus, the often inhibitive and judgmental nature of society seemingly serves a tangibly attributable purpose, in that it corrals its members into the adoption of a mutually shared system.
While examples of this game theory element existing in the sociological sphere are abound, a few pointed examples can aid in illustrating their implications.
The first and perhaps most mundane norm is that of standing in line. Society collectively decided that the mutual gains arising from such a norm necessitated its imposition. In this instance, everyone is best served if everyone follows the rules. However, the individual is best served if they can somehow vault to the front of the line, resulting in a positive eventuality for that individual and a negative eventuality for everybody else. Finally, if each person were to follow this logic and cut the line, circumventing the implicitly imposed norm, the group collectively would be much worse off, and chaos would ensue.
Therefore, the enforcement mechanism devised to prevent such an outcome is public shame and scorn for those who refuse to play by the rules. This enforcement mechanism, of subjecting the individual to perpetual public judgement serves to compel them to acquiesce and accept these rules. (Which as a tangent, is one of the central themes of The Stranger by Camus, a book that helped induce this theory) By introducing this element of judgement the aim is to alter the individual’s utilitarian calculus such that it becomes more beneficial to follow the rules than to circumvent them in search of individual gain.
Though this system is largely effective, there are instances where it breaks down, due in part to a multitude of competing factors. There are those individuals who remain unrestricted by the force of public judgement, and enough of them can cause the line to become chaotic, in both the figurative broader sense and the literal sense of this illustration. There are also instances where the deviant can remain surreptitious, thus removing the element of public scorn. Another element is what lies at the end of the ‘line’, in other words what is at stake. If the line is for a hot dog stand, the likelihood of a breakdown is slim. If the line is offering a limited number of sizable checks for a million dollars, however, the utilitarian calculus suddenly shifts, and the line is likely to become chaotic.
Nor is this structure limited solely to restrictions on an individual’s actions, for it also pervades their belief structure. It is here that the prisoner’s dilemma becomes somewhat more convoluted in nature and perhaps not as beneficial to the individual.
One example is the belief that ideology is one dimensional, in other words, that one’s actions and believes need be constrained to existing dialogue. One cannot therefore simultaneously believe in the eradication of a minimum wage and the strengthening of the social safety net. While this person may have completely consistent reasons for such oft-regarded disparate beliefs, society subjects them to scorn for not ‘playing by the rules’.
The reason for such an externally imposed belief structure is that the failure to adhere to such a belief structure corrodes the political status quo. An individual who does not buy into the existence of unnecessarily contingent political beliefs is a threat to existing politicians seeking to create a facade of cohesiveness. In effect, the reason for the imposition of this particular prisoner’s dilemma is that those existing at the helm of the status quo are best served by the lack of nuance in ideology.
Yet another example that has become politicized is the practice by African-American communities to shame those members of its community who are ‘too white’, in essence repudiating their origins. The reason for such scorn is the preservation of culture, whereby the group can collectively preserve the culture by coercing its members into ‘remaining black’. However, because ‘acting white’ is often merely a synonym for the rejection of the perverse elements in African-American communities, the individual benefits by transcending such externally imposed restrictions. However, we see again that if a group collectively does this, the ‘culture’ is lost, much to the chagrin of its more entrenched members.
Furthermore, such a societal restriction is often imposed by the community’s eldest members upon its burgeoning younger members. This is because though its eldest members have already been stunted by the perverse elements of their community and can no longer improve their lot, its younger members can disavow some of these elements and markedly enhance the trajectory of their lives. Thus, the existing prisoner’s dilemma is that those who are destined for destitution (ie the majority of the community) are better off if its members accept its tenets while the enterprising individual conversely benefits from the repudiation of such elements.
The implications of this interpretive framework are ample, but some are more crucial than others. That society functions as a prisoner’s dilemma is not necessarily an inherently good or bad thing, but there are instances of each. To refer to the aforementioned examples, the norm of standing in line is a beneficial one, whereas those restrictions regarding ideology and cultural affiliation can often prove rather pernicious.
Thus, from the individual’s perspective, one must realize and differentiate between the beneficial and perverse restrictions, and abide by the former and spurn the latter. The individual who remains unrestricted by social judgement and chooses actions on the basis of merit is well placed to move ahead in a society that often serves to inhibit the individual. Often times the individual can only get ahead by flouting social convention and remaining undeterred by social derision, with the realization of this mentioned prisoner’s dilemma framework.
In instances where society’s inhibitions are misplaced, one can take advantage of the prisoner’s dilemma to the benefit of the individual. While this may result in a lack of social gratification in some instances, this need not exist as a deterrent since popularity is overrated anyway.