Rule Governed Behavior in the Dominican Republic

My family and I had the recent opportunity to spend some time in the Dominican Republic. It’s immediately clear that although people are the same (in terms of how they develop and learn), there are some interesting cultural differences. There’s the Spanish history of this side of the island and it’s lasting impression, the open-air feel of most buildings that matches the beautiful weather. There are also different (unwritten) rules of the road.

We took a bus from Santiago for a couple of hours toward the coast. There are “No Rebase” (no passing) signs and double yellow lines painted on the pavement of our two lane road. There are larger trucks and quite a few pedestrians along the route. The striking image is that hundreds of light motorcycles are the preferred mode of transport. The actual rule of the road, as opposed to the written one, is that if you are in a bigger vehicle, you have the right of way. I suddenly became aware that a two lane road can have 4 or 5 lanes, if you’re creative enough. Busses pass motorcycles and cars, fast cars pass anybody, trucks pass slower vehicles whenever they want to, motorcyles mostly pass each other with polite little honks to let you know they are coming. Pedestrians better just get out of the way, because it’s your fault if you are too unaware and get hit.

We happened to be in the country for Semana Santa, or holy week. This is a time of lots of travel and celebration. A lot of people travel home to be with family and many others head for the beach – where we happened to be. In the first four days of the trip I counted two people on motorcycles who wore helmets. That’s out of hundreds of motorcycles (not including the 2,3 or 4 other passengers). Then, a police checkpoint sprung up on the road to the beach right in front of the place we were staying. Uniformed men with baseball bat like clubs stopped vehicles going out to the beach. Although we couldn’t hear what they were saying, the message became clear. I started to see helmets springing out of thin air like mushroom caps after the rain. There were real helmets to be sure, but most were a thin plastic that might arrive with your kid’s fire fighter play kit. About two hundred feet before the checkpoint, the helmets would go on – often held in place with one hand. About two hundred feet on the other side of the checkpoint, the helmets would disappear again – or sometimes blow off the driver’s head. One could tell that the first to arrive at the checkpoint were surprised by its existence. They had no magic bag to pull a helmet out of. Within the hour, however, everyone seemed to have received the message and were arriving prepared to follow the rule. Some drivers were turned away, only to return with a helmet; some were passed through with what I can only assume was a warning.

I never asked what the intent of the police checkpoint was. Were they there to enforce safety? Were they simply a show of force and warning of misbehavior? Did they think that helmet wearing was important (to this I’d answer, “no” and point to police officers arriving two-at-a-time on motorcycles without helmets)? Whatever their stated goals, if there were any, the result was clear. Expectations changed (antecedent/environmental variables), some behavior was punished (turn away those without helmets or warn them), some was encouraged (at least bring and wear a helmet). The word likely spread of this new rule-governed behavior as people told others that they ought to bring a helmet if they were going to the beach. Whatever the intent, it was fun and interesting to watch and think about how people interact with the expectations (rules) of their environment and the consequences of their actions. Knowing that access to the beach is important made the wearing of helmets a lot more powerful as a reinforcer. Not having any maintenance reinforcer/punisher associated with this behavior made the wearing of helmets last only a few hundred feet in most cases. People are an unending source of wonder. So, keep behaving people. We’ll keep observing.

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