How do small groups enforce behavior? Very often they do this by peer pressure. Peer pressure works reasonably well in any number of circumstances, particularly when group consensus is strong, and the social penalties for non-compliance have bite. In a farming community with a certain amount of co-reliance I suspect that this may be sufficient.
But the consensus is not always strong. Furthermore, in many instances there is a return consequence to enforcers of the norm. Knocking on your neighbor’s door and telling them to get off their lazy rear end and mow their lawn is likely to generate some self-excusing sob story, and the enduring enmity of your neighbor.
Which is why you go out and get yourself a “hired gun”.
How should a small organization – a firm, a university, a sports team – encourage good behavior? While punishment can often make things worse, this column proposes and tests a method the authors call the “hired gun”. By punishing only the worst offender, everyone is given an incentive to be the second-worst offender. If everyone follows that strategy, good behavior soon follows.
As the study notes, if you have a police car driving down the road, everyone piles up behind him; The first one to pass gets a ticket. So the threat of penalty on the worst offender (or in this case first) keeps everyone in line.