What a hockey fight can tell us about human action


The purpose of a law is to direct the way a person acts. Murder is against the law and the consequences of violating that law aim to prevent people from killing each other. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily eliminate the desire to kill, so if a person believed they could get away with (or if they didn’t care if they were able to get away with it), they would murder someone anyway.

If a person’s behavior is not modified to the point where they will no longer choose to violate the law, the only behavior modification that will happen is a modification of the means to achieve the desired end. This is why so many laws have unintended consequences.

I’ve been sitting on this topic for awhile, but the story of the bench clearing brawl in the charity hockey game between the NYPD and FDNY made this the perfect time.

Before this year’s season started, the NHL updated their rules for fighting: a player would receive an extra penalty if he removed his helmet prior to engaging in the fight. The goal of this rule was to help prevent head injuries when the players tumbled to the ice as they so often do at the end of a fight.

In a preseason game this year between the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, Brett Gallant and Krys Barch squared off for a fight. And then something pretty neat happened:

You saw that correctly: they removed each other’s helmets before they started to fight. They figured out a way to get what they wanted and managed to stay “within the rules.” What a slap in the face to the makers of this silly rule!

Players often prefer to remove their helmets prior to fighting for several reasons. For one, if the player wears a visor, it’s a courtesy to the other player to remove the helmet and visor because it’s viewed as an unfair advantage if one player fights with a visor. So when both players remove their helmets, it levels the playing field. It also helps players protect their hands–punches don’t always land where they’re supposed to and the hard plastic helmet can be hazardous to fists. If the helmets aren’t removed before the fight, players typically end up just ripping them off each other’s heads. I can’t imagine that’s a very pleasant experience.

Prior to this rule change, a player would receive an extra two minute penalty for instigating a fight while wearing a visor. As a result, players would remove their helmets just to make sure they wouldn’t be slapped with another penalty (when they had the chance). This became relevant after the Instigator rule was created (a player would receive an extra penalty for “instigating” a fight).

It’s obvious that the point of each rule is to correct the unintended consequences of the last, but each new rule creates new problems.

There was also a nice bit of Game Theory involved in this fight. Each player had to let the other remove his helmet, trusting that he wasn’t going to try to throw a sucker punch. Both players chose to trust each other instead of trying to take advantage of the situation. Had one player pulled a fast one, he would experience some pretty negative feedback from his future opponents. Cooperating in that moment created the most benefit and that’s why the players chose it.

Players are much better policing themselves. These rule changes may very likely achieve their goal after several iterations, but at what expense? There’s an unwritten, natural code of order that the players abide by and that gets eroded when official rules are made to supersede them.

There is not much difference when this idea is applied to government. Draconian measures are usually needed in order to control human behavior in a matter that the planners want. Humans are imperfect and there will always be people who behave badly. How does limiting a person’s ability to solve his problems help the good people out there?

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Ed Goldenberg

very interesting comparison