Thursday, May 23, 2013

Pyramid of choices

There is a gift  giving culture in Mumbai during Diwali time which I was unused to when I first started working there. One day a gift of two shirts from a company was sent home - one for me and one for a colleague. Both of us were making the Prospectus for the company for a Public Issue.We were uneasy about the whole thing and wondered if there was any quid pro quo expected but we couldn't figure out what it could be since both of us were at a junior level and couldn't have influenced anything.

We wondered whether it would rude to return the gift to the company. We finally decided to to keep them unopened and see what happens.  Over the subsequent days we met the company officials several times in connection with the Public Issue but they never mentioned anything about the gift, not even to ask whether we liked it or not and we gradually concluded that our trepidation was unwarranted.

At the other end of this scale of inducements lie scams of thousands of crores that one regularly hears about in the news. How does one progress along this scale probably without even realising it? The authors of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) explain this process through the metaphor of 'The Pyramid of Choice'.

Imagine two young men having similar attributes and clustered close together on the moral landscape. They have similar attitude towards, say, cheating - they think that it is not a good thing to do, but that there are worse crimes in the world. (As an aside, here is Dan Ariely on dishonesty.) During the exam, the two men are faced with the same temptation to cheat. One yields and the other resists.

Their decisions a hair's breadth apart and could easily have gone the other way for each of them.Now the question is: How do they feel about their actions a week later?The one who cheated will feel that it is not a big crime - everyone does it, it is no big deal, after all it was important for his career...The one who resisted the temptation will feel that cheating is more immoral than he thought - actually such people are disgraceful and should be permanently expelled from school,  we should make an example of them...

By the time they are through with their self-justifications, they are far apart from one another and are convinced that they have always felt this way. From the book:
It is as if they had started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand at opposite corners of its base.The one who didn't cheat considers the other to be totally immoral, and the one who cheated thinks the other is hopelessly puritanical. This process illustrates how people who have been sorely tempted, battled temptation, and almost given in to it - but resisted at the eleventh hour - come to dislike, even despise, those who did not succeed in the same effort.It's the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones. 
This  process applies to most important decisions involving moral choices, for eg., whether to sample an illegal drug or not, whether to take performance enhancing drugs or not, to indulge in paid news or not, to take 100 crore bribe or not...All these big actions happen one step at a time. Most people believe they are incorruptible but once you accept the first small inducement and justifies it, you have started your slide down the pyramid.

If you had lunch with the businessman about a contract, why not discuss it on the golf course? What is the difference?Then why not go with him to attend a conference in London?What's wrong with that?From London, why not go to Paris for a week's holiday?After all, I am going with a friend. By the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, having accepted and justified ever-larger inducements, the public is appalled at the scale of the corruption. The authors write:
When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are  benefits and costs of both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made.But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.
 This process blurs the distinction that people like to draw between"us good guys"and "those bad guys".  Often, standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-and-white, go/no-go decision, but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice.This starts a process of entrapment - action, justification, further action - that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original  intentions or principles.
In the Milgram obedience experiment, if people had been asked to apply the maximum shock initially, many may have refused to comply. But since they are asked to increase the shock step by step, it becomes easy to to justify one's actions at each step and ending up far away from one's initial position.

This metaphor illustrates why I am not so hot about Anna Hazare type movements. In Pakistan, Imran Khan says that he will end corruption in 90 days which is extremely naive. If successful, it will punish people who are already at the bottom of the pyramid but this won't stop  corruption. That will happen only if many people at the top of the pyramid (which is where most people are initially) don't feel compelled to slide down its slopes and easily justify their actions.

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