Social Contracts: The Unspoken Agreements That Drive Behaviour

There’s nothing more startling to the cultural part of my brain than to go to the UK and get in a car. Everything is wrong – the position of the driver’s wheel, how people drive, even their behavior as drivers is totally different from what I’m accustomed to. And yet by some miracle, people are getting safely and swiftly from A to B all throughout London. Clearly, there is no ‘right way’ to drive or position a steering wheel, there’s only ‘our’ way or ‘their’ way.
It makes me think:  What other aspects of life that I assume are set in stone are in fact completely arbitrary and habituated like this?

Must a car have four wheels?

Do we have to sit perpendicular to the floor (as with most chairs)?

It makes you realize that our lives are essentially a super-structure of inter-connecting social contracts. Money is a social contract. Stopping at red lights is a social contract. The border between the U.S. and Canada is social contract. The concept of property ownership. The entire framework of our society — and any society — is composed of social contracts. They are collective agreements that regulate human behavior — and also shape the imagination without our knowing it.

A few years ago, I wrote about Gerald Zaltman’s book How Customers Think. Zaltman is a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in understanding the “shared mental models” that drive behaviour, including social contracts. Every subculture you belong to has social contracts and shared mental models (the former is a subset of the latter). The do’s and don’ts, the rituals, the language, the attitudes and beliefs that are de rigueur in that particular tribe.

Strange thing is: Do you remember anyone asking you to sign any of these contracts? Do you even remember the day when you decided you concurred with these mental models? Of course not. It happened through osmosis, and very early. We adapted and molded ourselves to fit perfectly, for the most part, inside these mental structures.

For anyone who is a designer, innovator, strategist, or creative person of any kind, it is essential that one becomes conscious of social contracts — to the point where human behavior appears almost to follow visible guard rails and structures. Our perceptions and attitudes are profoundly shaped by social contracts. All true creativity depends first on the willingness and ability to step outside of these shared mental models and play with them, stretch them, question them, understand and appreciate their persistence, and even replace them with something better.