Tagged: incentives

Distrust, Integrity and Oblique nudges

I suspect from now on I can at best, blog once a month here, if not, once every 2 months. I guess that’a s good sign, that work is fun enough that I want to commit more time and energy to it.

I wonder if Singaporeans just don’t care – is it the system we live in that just doesn’t make us have regard for other people? One of my gut feelings has been that Singaporeans in general don’t really care for other people in the altruistic sense, and the process we’ve designed were not meant for altruism, but to guard against abuse. The implication of designing a system against abuse is that it can end up in a situation where people’s default towards one another becomes mistrust. And when trust frays, a lot of things become difficult.

Viewed in this sense, any multi-step bureaucracy that requires verification is a form of mistrust. Some of it may be justifiable for the sake of accountability, but too many hoops in the way and people give up. To say that, “we need to balance between accountability and efficiency” sets up a bad dichotomy. In my own prejudiced view, there is only integrity, and the trust that people will do the right thing in the overwhelming majority of the time. Most of the time, mistrust-based processes spoils good intentions. How processes are designed, and the default assumptions built in can have long-lasting implications for the health of the system.

I suspect there’s a lot to mine from this way of thinking. This discussion on integrity, mistrust and social values in general is against the grain of talking about policies in terms of incentives and punishments that have been the norm in many of our institutions – public AND private institutions. We assume that prices are the only thing that people respond to, although marketers have also been wildly successful in triggering the emotional-status parts of the brain. I hear the government is going to have another round of fiscal incentives for “procreation”. Maybe the conversations should be away from those incentives (as important as they are) but use other points of entry in an oblique way – having firm anti-discriminatory laws, improve workplace culture, give people the cultural and personal spaces to pursue what they love, instead of constantly pressing the incentive/punish buttons.

Describing a new paradigm

In case you didn’t notice, but our knowledge has changed, and along with that, some very widely-held notions of how people are.

We have gained new understandings in the idea of networks – how elements interact together in a system, and how some elements, by virtue of their position, can have disproportionate impact on the entire system. We have gained new understandings in complex phenomenon, of how simple laws can lead to phenomena thought too complex to be understood.

These new understandings apply to both human and non-human systems, from biology, to cellular organization, to the behaviour of ants and bees, or the flocks of birds and the schools of fish.

            We have gained new understandings into ourselves. Fields related to the cognition and the processes of the mind are creating a different conception of the human being, one that suggests the human mind is more complex than we have ever thought before. The human mind at birth is not a blank slate, nor is it infinitely plastic. The brain/mind question is not a simple hardware/software issue.

Our logic is flawed, and shaped by the millennia of selection processes, and cognitive biases are sometimes, manifestation of those processes, sometimes ill-suited to present circumstances. We are only beginning to understand the conception of creativity and how human structures either undermine creativity or allow it to flourish.

We are beginning to realize that monetary incentives will not always motivate people towards desirable behaviour, and how intrinsic motivations are often more powerful than material, extrinsic ones. We are beginning to realize, and look seriously again at the meaning of happiness and how we might arrive there, and how to shape the economic, social and political systems toward that end.

We are only beginning to tap the potential of the very small to the very large and everywhere in between. We are exploring the manipulation of atoms and the individual forces; we are tapping into the potential of microbes for the human ends, to fulfill human needs, of energy, and food. We are continually asking the biggest questions – what is the universe, and we are getting better at asking those questions.

We live in exciting times.