A rusty lock on a gate
(credit: Karel Julien Cole/Flickr CC BY)

An accidental behavioural economist in lockdown — Part I: Flipping wisdom

Economics everywhere, and not an economist in sight

There is something about milestones. I was reminded of this fact by a post last weekend on Martin Carty’s blog. The milestone of its 300th article was celebrated with a guest post by my friend David D’Souza, who in it looks back on many years of blogging, and reflects on how and why he writes: for the joy of writing, sharing, and connecting.

By happy coincidence, this week it is four years and a few days ago since I published my first blogpost. The topics I write about are, superficially at least, different from David’s (he usually writes about things like HR, management and leadership). But scratch the surface just a little, and perhaps they are more closely connected than they appear. My very first post (in English) had as its title “We are all economists”, and attempted to show how much of our behaviour can be understood by looking at it from an economics perspective. So we share an interest in how people behave, make decisions and interact with each other.

And like David, I am also motivated by the joy of writing, sharing and connecting. It gives me joy to observe and try to understand the behaviour of the people around me, wherever I am: it is a compelling force to activate empathy — how can you understand someone if you don’t empathize with them? It gives me even more joy to share my observations and reflections on my blog — and it has undoubtedly given me a huge number of connections, people who have reached out because, somehow, something I wrote moved them or resonated with them.

But that was not what I was going to write about today. Usually, in late spring, we go away to the English south coast for a week, where I take the opportunity (an accidental behavioural economist never rests) to observe my fellow humans from a different perspective, and in a different setting. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic meant we did stay at home, but that did not prevent me spotting interesting behaviour and choices, that provided food for thought. Even when not on a break.

Impossible to overlook, these last few weeks, were the hundreds of demonstrations around the world following the brutal killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. That would have been remarkable at any time. The fact that they took place during a pandemic, at a time when we are still supposed to stay at home as much as possible, keep at a safe distance from others, and certainly not to attend mass gatherings made them even more noteworthy.

But also controversial, and controversial actions are intriguing material for a student of human behaviour. (I will entirely leave to one side the polemic around the judiciousness of the demonstrations, e.g. on the overall cost/benefit, or the political context — here are some links in case you are interested: a Twitter thread, a Guardian article and an Atlantic article. My concern here is to understand the behaviour, not to judge.)

The participants of the rallies worldwide were widely condemned for exposing themselves and each other to an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, as well as potentially causing new outbreaks. But my inner economist immediately identified that there was a trade-off, with risks on one side, and benefits on the other. Blaming people for the downside of their actions without considering the upsides is not a good way to understand them. Is simply a looking at trade-off sufficient, though?

Our perspective on trade-offs is generally unconsciously anchored on our own position. When we try to understand other people’s choices, we look at upsides and downsides from our perspective. If we were not at the demonstrations, we had, by definition, already made our own, different, trade-off. To really understand those who marched, we would need to flip our anchor.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in Montreal
Black Lives Matter demonstration in Montreal
And what if we reversed the roles? (photo: scottmontreal/Flickr CC BY)

Imagine seeing someone driving through town, late on a Saturday night, at twice the speed limit. We’d intuitively classify the driver as a dangerous lunatic and that’s that. But to understand the driver, we’d need to ask ourselves what would make us do something similar. Say your heavily pregnant sister was visiting you, and her waters broke and you needed to get her to the hospital pronto, would you obey the speed limit — or at least understand someone might not?

We should not anchor our reasoning on the current situation as we judge it, but on the current action, and work back from there. It is only by thinking about what would make us violate the COVID-19 rules and put ourselves and others at risk, we can form a view about how strong the feelings and motives of the demonstrators are.

A similar approach can help appreciate privilege, especially from the perspective of those who enjoy privilege without realizing it*. We have a tendency to ascribe our successes to our skills, ability and effort — a characteristic known as self-serving bias (and our failures to external circumstances or the actions of others). This is the basis for the assumption that society is, by and large, meritocratic. If, like is the case for me, your skin is white and your sex organs are on the outside of your body, it is easy to not be conscious of the privilege you benefit from, like the goldfish from David Foster Wallace’s famous speech, who is oblivious to what water is.

Many people sincerely believe they are blind to ethnicity or gender — that they genuinely don’t notice whether a colleague is a man or a woman, or whether they have a coloured skin or not. If, say, the vast majority of people in the upper management echelons of an organization, happen to be white males (something that is far from unusual), then they assume this is just a matter of meritocracy. Here is a little thought experiment to test how blind they really are.

The company you work for merges with a competitor. Business is booming, so there is no need to cut staff numbers in the operational and support roles. However, the firm only needs one of every senior management role. The structures of the two pre-merger enterprises were identical, so exactly half of the senior managers will be made redundant. How to choose who stays? The new boss happens to be an arch-meritocrat, who will compare the incumbents from each constituent organization with their respective counterpart. And lo and behold, the candidates with the most merits are all, without exception, women from an ethnic minority background.

Will those who claim to be blind really not notice? I used to see myself as colour and gender blind, but the anchor flip of this thought experiment has made me realize that was an illusion. The reason I didn’t ‘notice’ the gender or skin colour of colleagues and clients was not my deliberate, self-professed blindness, but the fact that I shared my skin colour and gender with most of them — and like the goldfish was to water, I was oblivious to this.

When we feel a smug moment coming on, convinced we are right and anyone with a different view is wrong, it’s a good idea to do the anchor flip.

Lego figurines depicting a harassed person trying to work from home with children wreaking havoc
Lego figurines depicting a harassed person trying to work from home with children wreaking havoc
Working more flexibly — but preferably when the children are at school (photo: crises_crs/Flickr CC BY)

A final example of flipping I noticed over the past few weeks comes courtesy of my son-in-law. At the beginning of the lockdown, his employer had operated a hurriedly worked out ad-hoc shift system for a few weeks, in which people came to the office some days, and worked from home the others. This had been followed by a period of furlough, until last Monday when normal work resumed. In the past, he had occasionally been grumbling about his company’s stubborn attachment to rigid working times — a bit of flexibility would have been rather helpful to him as a young father of two. However, an externally enforced change in boundary conditions seems to have done what numerous reasonable requests and arguments were incapable of. Upon the big return to work, several of his colleagues have opted for (and been granted) part time working, and most others (including he) will be working from home at least some of the time — with the boss’s blessing.

The canonical example of this phenomenon in the behavioural sciences is that of the London commuters affected by a two-day Underground strike. Forced through external circumstances to find another route to work, around 1 in 20 of them stuck to the alternative route after the strike, a study by Shaun Larcom and colleagues found (summarized in an easy-to-read article here).

Flipping the anchor of our perspective is a remarkably powerful way of breaking out a fixed, limiting mindset, which opens the way to more wisdom. Happy flipping (and see you next week for part II of my lockdown observations)!

* I know, because that’s what did it for me.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on June 12, 2020.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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