What are Rules Anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about rules. We are currently operating under Covid restrictions, we’ve had the “rule of 6”, constraints on business operations, reporting and testing regulations. Everyone is talking about “the rules”. I’m also dieting at the moment, for the first time in my life!, and on a forum where everyone asks about the rules: what are we allowed? how many carbs can I have, is alcohol against the rules? And in my day job, I work on guidance and processes around how things should work in the use of technology in teaching: constraints and expectation-setting. Also I just finished watching the Queen’s Gambit which is all about chess which I can’t play but I admire. The Rules. There are rules everywhere.

But what are rules?

Guidance and Rules

There is a blurry line between rules and guidance and I guess it depends on the implicit contract between the rule-makers and the subjects.

  • In chess: you can’t really break the rules. Simple!
  • In a diet, following the guidance is described by many dieters as submitting to the rules. When people “break” the rules in a diet they often use moral terminology: sinning, being naughty, falling off the wagon.
  • In a workplace, people may or may not accept the authority of the rule-maker. In the university where I work I can think of many examples where people aren’t really accepting the authority of “the centre” to make the rules. We have a lot of guidance that could be rules if the culture allowed it.
  • In a pandemic, well … what we’re seeing right now is a mix of attitudes towards the guidance and the rules and it has a lot to do with attitudes towards government and “science”.


Some rules are enforceable, some are very hard to enforce.

The police can’t possibly have enforced sanctions on every breach of the rule of six: there aren’t enough police and it would be massively intrusive within people’s homes. But they needed the rule so that when they did need to intervene in the situation they had a rule to hook it on to.

In my workplace, there are many workarounds and exceptions to most things that we ask people to do or not do. A lot of what we to do to tighten control is try to introduce sanctions. Rarely do make it impossible to break rules.

We often talk about incentivising and disincentivising, and about nudge as a subtle incentive, and best practice. I picture it like this:

Impact: Individual vs Collective

One factor in how people respond to rules is their attitude towards the rule-makers. But I wonder if another factor in how people respond is their mindset. Rules are designed to control or influence the behaviours of individuals. But they are designed at the level of collective impact. They are designed around models of what happens if all- or most- people do something. Many rules are made in the knowledge that there will be exceptions. For some people, hunting out those exceptions seems to be a first instinct. In my workplace I’ve seen policy discussions where the proposed rule will work in 80% of cases (“the Pareto principle”) but everyone wants to discuss the 20% even when we’ve already established there will be exceptions. I am guilty of that myself. It is our culture to seek out “edge cases” and foreground those as reasons to delay on the rule-making.

Sadly, I have also seen way too many examples of people not being able to see the collective impact of following or breaking rules. If everyone parked in a Disabled Parking spot because they were “only popping in to a shop”, the system breaks down. If everyone jumped the queue there would be no queue. If no-one wore a mask because they were “uncomfortable”, there would be no barriers to transmission. The whole point of rules is to seek sustainable behaviours at the collective level. Rules are a collective endeavour.

Final Thought

I am not naturally trusting of authority. I don’t trust our current government, I reserve the right to challenge everything a government does. I don’t trust capitalism to make the rules, I don’t trust any religion to make the rules. I’ve never 100% trusted any employer, any organisation, or any person, come to think of it. But I think we need to pick our battles wisely: some rules can be followed without much negative personal impact (i.e wear a mask, for godsake), and some rules might seem overkill but maybe they are there for the collective good. Maybe they are there to manage demand patterns for example “flattening the curve” for the NHS capacity. There might be factors that come into play that we don’t understand. It’s probably complicated.

I’d quite like a simpler world some days, with rules that everyone understands and everyone sticks to. If anyone has any tips on learning chess, it’s suddenly seeming very enticing!


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