Here’s a pair of questions raised by Dan Ariely in his book, Predictably Irrational:
Your school age daughter calls you at work and asks you to bring home a red pencil she needs for her homework.
Q1: You find a red pencil in your company’s supply closet. Would you take it home or would you consider that cheating?
Q2: You can’t find any red pencils in the office but you know you can buy one for a quarter at the office supply store around the corner. You don’t have a quarter but you can find one in the petty cash drawer by the coffee machine. Would you take a quarter and buy your daughter a red pencil or would you consider that cheating?
If you’re like Dan Ariely or me or most people, you think it’s OK to take a pencil from the supply closet but you would never take a quarter from the petty cash drawer.
The value involved is the same in both cases, so why do we think one scenario is OK and the other is not? According to Ariely, it’s about cash. We tend not to cheat when cash is involved. We know it’s wrong to take money. We can’t rationalize the action to ourselves.
The farther we get from cash, however, the easier it is to rationalize cheating. Most of us wouldn’t steal money from a stranger. But we might shade things a bit on our tax returns and we don’t feel too badly about inflating our losses on insurance claims. Ariely concludes that, “When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash.”
So does this mean that corruption is about to skyrocket in Sweden?
For the past several decades, Sweden has been moving toward a cashless society. Banks began charging for checks about 30 years ago. Rather than writing checks, people found it easier and less expensive to transfer money from one account to another, initially by fax, then online, and now by mobile devices like smartphones. ATMs are being phased out. By one estimate, only 900 of the 1,600 branch banks in the country even bother to keep cash on hand.
So how do Swedes pay for things? With blips and chips. You can pay the parking meter with your smart phone. You can transfer money from one account to another with an app called Swish. You can give money to a beggar by swiping a card or tapping a phone. Even Swedish churches use apps instead of collection plates.
The Swedish transition to a cashless society accelerated in September 2009, after the Västberga heist. Thieves in a stolen helicopter smashed through the skylight of a bank-processing center and made off with about $6.5 million in cash. The heist has been romanticized endlessly in Sweden. But its biggest impact was to erode trust in cash. If cash could be stolen so easily – and it was never recovered – why bother with cash? (I happened to walk by the Västberga center, on my way to work, about half an hour before the attack. Yikes!)
In addition to theft, cash is involved with a whole host of nefarious activities – ranging from drugs to weapons to prostitution to payments to illegal aliens. So why not do away with it? Dan Ariely’s data may give us pause – the farther we get from cash, the more likely we are to cheat.
So is Sweden growing more corrupt? At least one estimate suggests, “…cases of electronic fraud have more than doubled in the past decade….” Before giving up cash altogether, the Swedish government should take some baseline measures of corruption and cheating and then monitor them over time. It may turn out that going cashless is much more expensive than the occasional bank heist.
I used to think that experience plus memory produced beliefs. Now I think I may have gotten this backwards as well. (For other things I’ve gotten backwards, click here).
Here’s how I used to think memory worked:
We experience the world around us and we remember our previous experiences. By and large, our memories of previous experiences are accurate. Perhaps we lose a little detail around the edges but the main ideas are clear and constant. The combination of (accurate) memories plus current experiences leads us to conclusions about how the world works. These conclusions create mental models and, voilà, we have a belief system. Our memories create our beliefs.
As our experiences change, our belief system does, too. We’re constantly comparing our experiences to our mental models. As our experiences – both remembered and current – change, our mental models should change, too. We can be confident that our memories are accurate and that our mental models are up to date.
It’s all neat and tidy. Everything flows in a nice, straight line. It’s completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong.
According to Chris Chabris and Dan Simons, most people – 63% in their survey – believe that “human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” It’s a comforting thought but it’s wrong. We invent new memories with remarkable ease and mix up events and expectations
As Chabris and Simons point out, our memory “…depends both on what actually happened and how we make sense of what happened.” We may have the same experiences as other people but draw different lessons from them. But if my lessons learned are different from yours … well, whose memory is accurate? My lessons learned fit my mental models and yours fit yours. Our beliefs create our memories.
As Jorge Luis Borges pointed out, no one sees a unicorn because no one expects to see a unicorn. The same is true for memory – we remember what we expect to remember. William Brewer and James Treyens conducted a classic experiment on this. They asked subjects to wait briefly in “…what they thought was a graduate student’s office…” Shortly after, the researchers asked the students to recall what they saw in the office. The subjects reported seeing what one would expect to see in a graduate student’s office – books, file cabinets, etc. But none of that was there; the subjects simply made it up.
Our memories change to fit our beliefs, not the other way round. Chabris and Simons recount the story of the basketball coach Bobby Knight who was fired for “choking” a young college player. Knight and the player had radically different memories of the event. In fact, Knight claimed not to remember it at all. I suspect he was telling the truth. Knight had a famously bad temper and choking a student was apparently not such a big deal to him. Nothing special to remember. For the player, it was exactly the opposite. Being choked by a world-famous coach was a very big deal. In fact, the player remembered an “embellished” version of the event — even after seeing video tape of the event.
Who was lying? Probably neither the player nor Knight. Their memories simply conformed to their beliefs.
The list goes on. We don’t notice changes in our surroundings. We see a person in a black leather jacket leave the room. Moments later, we see a person in a black leather jacket make a phone call. We perceive it to be the same person and remember it that way – even if two very different people are wearing similar jackets.
We can also “borrow” memories from others. If my friend, Trevor, tells a colorful story about himself that peripherally involves me, I may change it over time by swapping the actors. Trevor becomes the peripheral character; I become the main event. Further, I’ll be absolutely confident that I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
What’s it all mean? We’re far too confident in our own memories. Our memories change to fit our beliefs. Eyewitnesses have no idea what really happened. Different people with different memories of the same event are all telling the truth as they see it. Nothing is as it seems. And don’t you forget it.
My students know that I’m a stickler for good writing. When they ask me why I’m so picky, my answer usually boils down to something that’s logically akin to, “Because I said so.”
I know that the ability to write effectively has helped my career. But is it really so important in today’s world of instant communications? Only if you want to save $400 billion a year.
Josh Bernoff, the owner of WOBS LLC, recently published his survey of 547 business professionals who write “at least two hours per week for work, excluding e-mail”. Bernoff’s findings make a clear and compelling case for teaching – and mastering — effective writing skills. His key findings:
Bernoff rolls all the numbers together and concludes that, “…America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.” The total cost? About $400 billion.
Bernoff calculates the cost of wasted time. But what’s the direct cost? How much do we spend teaching our employees to write well? Bernoff doesn’t address this specifically but I found a College Board survey from 2004 that digs into the question. The survey went to 120 American companies associated with the College Board’s Business Roundtable. The result? American companies – excluding government agencies and nonprofits – spend about $3.1 billion annually “remedying deficiencies in writing”.
The College Board study also cites an April 2003 white paper titled, “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need For a Writing Revolution.” The conclusion of that study was simple: “Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.”
In 2006, The Conference Board picked up a similar theme in a report that asked a simple question: “Are They Ready To Work?” The survey asked companies about the most important skills that newly minted graduates should have. It then asked respondents to grade the skills of newly hired employees. Graduates of two- and four-year college programs were rated “deficient” in three areas: 1) Written communications, and 2) Writing in English; 3) Leadership.
Business leaders agree that writing is an important skill. We can cite studies going back more than a decade that suggest we’re doing a poor job teaching the skill. Bernoff’s study suggests we’re not doing any better today – in fact, we may be doing worse. What to do? We need to invest more time, energy, and effort teaching the “neglected R”. Or you could just hire me.
In persuasive presentations, we often appeal to commonplaces — opinions, attitudes, or perceptions that are widely held by a particular group. Like common sense, these attitudes are (supposedly) common to all members of a group. As persuaders, we can speak to a common point of view. We’re on common ground and we can move forward together.
The problem, of course, is that commonplaces aren’t so common. Indeed, many commonplaces have equal and opposite commonplaces to counterbalance them. One commonplace advises us to look before we leap. Another reminds us that he who hesitates is lost. On the one hand, we root for the underdog. On the other hand, we admire the self-made man – who is anything but an underdog.
It seems that we can find a commonplace to suit almost any argument. Want to lower taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (The government is inefficient. You earned it. You keep it. etc.) Want to raise taxes? There’s a commonplace for that. (We’re all in this together. We need to help each other. etc.) And “good” commonplaces can be twisted to support “bad” causes. As Shakespeare reminds us in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”
In my persuasion class, I ask students to write papers in which they argue a point. By and large, my students are quite adept at deploying commonplaces to support their arguments. I notice that they often deploy commonplaces that they believe in. To be persuasive, however, we need to consider the commonplaces that the audience believes in. I shouldn’t assume that you think like me. Rather, I should seek to understand what you think and use that as a starting point for building my argument.
The concept of using the audience’s commonplaces is as old as Greek rhetoric. It got a boost last year when the sociologists Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg published their research on argumentation and moral values. Their basic finding: we are more persuasive when we frame arguments for a political position around “the target audience’s moral values.”
Feinberg and Willer point out that liberals and conservatives have different moral values (or commonplaces in our terminology). They write “…liberals tend to be more concerned with care and equality where conservatives are more concerned with … group loyalty, respect for authority and purity.”
They then tested how to persuade conservatives to take a liberal position or vice-versa. For instance, how would you persuade conservatives to support same-sex marriage? They found that conservatives are more likely to agree with an argument based on patriotism than one based on equality and fairness. Conservatives tended to agree with an argument that, ““same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.” They were less likely to agree with an argument couched in terms of fairness and equality.
Aristotle taught us that the best person to judge the quality of food is the one who eats it, not the one who prepares it. The same is true for arguments. You can’t judge how effective your argument is. Only the audience can. The moral of the story? Get over yourself. Learn what the audience is thinking.
How easy is it for an us-versus-them situation to arise? How often do we define our group as different from – and therefore better than – another group? The short answers: It’s surprisingly easy and it happens all the time.
In my professional life, I often saw us-versus-them attitudes arise between headquarters and the field. Staffers at head-quarters thought they were in a good position to direct field activities. People in the field thought the folks at headquarters just didn’t have a clue about the real world.
Headquarters and the field are typically separated by many factors, including geography, planning horizons, rank, age, academic experience, and tenure. Each side has plenty of reasons to feel different from – and superior to – the other side. But how many reasons does it take to generate us-versus-them attitudes?
In the early 1970s, the social psychologist Henri Tajfel tried to work out the minimum requirements for one group to discriminate against another group. It turns out that it doesn’t take much. People who are separated into groups based on their shirt color develop us-versus-them attitudes. People who are separated based on the flip of a coin do the same. Tajfel’s minimal group paradigm is quite simple: The minimum requirement to create us-versus-them attitudes is the existence of two groups.
Us-versus-them attitudes are completely natural. They arise without provocation. There’s no conspiracy. All we need is two groups. I sometimes hear managers say, “Let’s not develop us-versus-them attitudes here.” But that’s completely unnatural. Something about our human nature requires us to develop such attitudes when two groups exist. It can’t not happen.
We can’t avoid us-versus-them attitudes but we can dissolve them. We can’t stop them from starting but we can stop them once they have started.
The pioneering research on this was the Robbers Cave Experiment conducted in 1954. Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif, professors at the University of Oklahoma, selected two dozen 12-year-old boys from suburban Oklahoma City and sent them off to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park. The boys were quite similar in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. None of the boys knew each other at the beginning of the experiment.
The boys were randomly divided into two groups and housed in different areas of the campground. Initially, the groups didn’t know of each other’s existence. They discovered each other only when they began to compete for camp resources, like playing fields or dining halls. Once they discovered each other, they quickly named their groups: Rattlers and Eagles.
So far, the boys’ behavior was entirely predictable. The research question was: How do you change such behavior to reduce us-versus-them attitudes?
The researchers first measured the impact of mere contact. The researchers thought that by getting the boys to mingle – in dining halls or on camp buses, for example – they could overcome negative attitudes and build relationships. The finding: mere contact did not change attitudes for the better. Indeed, when contact was coupled with competition for resources, it increased friction rather than reducing it.
The researchers then moved on to superordinate goals. The two groups had to cooperate to achieve a goal that neither group could achieve on its own. For example, the researchers arranged for the camp bus to “break down”. They also arranged for the water supply to go dry. Rattlers and Eagles had to work together to fix the problems. The finding: cooperation on a larger goal reduced friction and the two groups began to integrate. Rattlers and Eagles actually started to like each other.
The research that the Sherifs started has now grown into a domain known as realistic conflict theory or RCT. The theory suggests that groups will develop resentful attitudes towards other groups, especially when they compete for resources in a zero-sum situation. According to Wikipedia, RCT suggests that “…positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place.”
The moral of the story is simple: you can’t prevent us-versus-them attitudes but you can fix them. Just find a problem that requires cooperation and collaboration.