Saturday, July 04, 2009

Getting Your Fair Advantage

A former co-worker of mine has moved to India for a year. He is finding it to be the adventure of a lifetime and is learning what it means to be a foreigner in a very foreign land. I mention this because he and his spouse recently experienced something that seems to be one of the few behaviors that does not discriminate, is multicultural, and leaves the people experiencing the wrong end of it feeling guilty of who and what they are, what they have accomplished. Not to mention a rather large dose of anger as well.

In short, they were taken advantage of by someone they trusted. While it happens to most people at one time or another it still elicits a range of emotions, most of them negative.

What is amazing to me is that this seems to be a human phenomenon, not a cultural one. A trait of being homo-sapiens. The anthropological/cultural reasons for this to exist and be so similar across cultures and geographies is fascinating to me.

Could it be as simple as risk vs. reward. In high order primates, taking advantage in small ways is not punished severely if at all. It is theorized that keeping the social fabric together is more important for survival than ostracizing only the most egregious transgressions. While this is an oversimplification I think it plays out in how people learn to take their 'fair advantage'.

I have come to the conclusion that understanding how people assess risk vs. reward is key to long term working partnerships. If there is very little risk in someone getting their fair advantage, rest assured they will take it. The book Freakonomics has a great chapter describing the risk vs. reward aspect of taking advantage"

"Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, caught teachers cheating by analyzing all the individual answers of every student in the Chicago public school system. What he found was that after students had turned in their tests, teachers were going through and changing their answers. Not every answer, mind you, but enough to boost scores. In his example, he shows how in a class of 22 students, at least 15 students had the same string of six correct answers. At first glance, this seems a little suspicious, especially since the string comes towards the end of the test, where the harder questions tend to be. Not only that, but several of the students who got these answers correct left at least four of the questions in the same section blank, showing they probably could not have answered the earlier questions correctly. To add to it, these were poor performing students who did not have strings of six answers correct anywhere else on the test. The students made huge leaps during this year, however, the next year they sank back down to their low level. Obviously something was amiss."

The motivation was obvious. Teachers, who are notoriously poorly paid anyway, needed the money and were willing to engage in unethical behavior to acquire those bonuses. The teachers did not do this solely because they are unethical, they did it because they realized there was little risk involved because no one was minding the store. A system was set up with no checks and balances.

The community at large is one way to mitigate this. Find out their standing in the community and use your intuition. If you feel like you are helping someone out, perhaps they need help because of how they conduct themselves. If they are going out of their way to help you out, ask yourself what reward are they looking for and what are they risking by helping you.

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