Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Frying it makes it OK

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“Frying it makes it ok.” Those were the words of an emotional commercial fisherman whose fishing grounds were in the Gulf of Mexico, as he was being interviewed by a reporter about how his fishing business had collapsed due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He was however still fishing to put food on the table for his family and when asked why he thought it was ok to feed the potentially tainted fish to his family but not sell it commercially, “Frying it makes it ok” was his response.

As I looked at the man being interviewed I could not help but see upon his face a look that told me he did not truly believe what he was saying, but he felt it necessary to mouth words that perhaps justified his actions of desperation, taken in order to feed his family. Upon further reflection I was left wondering if I had read too much into the man’s expression, or perhaps misread it. Maybe this was a case of the fisherman’s knowledge exceeding my own, certainly that would not be hard given what I know about fishing. Or perhaps what I saw on his face was wishful thinking, true belief, illusion born of desperation or simple ignorance. It got me wondering just what is it about the fish swimming in the gulf that made them unsafe to eat and what I found in searching was that there are chemicals in the crude oil called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which have been shown to cause cancer. They are ingested by the fish as they swim through the crude oil and end up in their flesh. So the risk is there, but it still left me wondering about the fisherman’s reaction. Perhaps the fisherman thought that the odds of anything happening to his family were low enough to justify the risk. Or perhaps having already suffered the loss of his business, he felt that the specter of disaster would now pass over his family, not striking twice, even if they ate the tainted food.

What are the odds? Odds are a funny thing, often given to misinterpretation and manipulation. I had some family visiting from a very small upstate NY town a few weeks ago and we did the obligatory New York City sightseeing. We started at Grand Central, took the #4 to Ground Zero, walked over to the Battery and glimpsed the Statue of Liberty, ate lunch in Little Italy and walked through China Town. On the walk through China Town, one of our visitors ducked inside a small bodega, which is a very small grocery-like store. He bought several lottery tickets with money his small-town neighbor had given him. The logic behind why she wanted him to purchase the tickets in NYC was that all the lottery winners seem to come from the big city and not the small town where she lived. The numbers of tickets sold in her small town versus the big city would of course be orders of magnitude different but that did not seem to enter into her calculation. She just figured there were more winners in NYC.

(For some the lottery is as addicting and financially debilitating as smoking or drinking and while we seem to value cutting those additions, we don’t seem to be doing much to cut the addiction to the lottery, rather quite the contrary. The lottery itself is nothing more than a regressive tax on many who can ill afford to pay it.)

People regularly miscalculate odds. Add to that how simple it is to make people feel “special” that somehow some magic is going to shine on them and you get some distorted behavior. A friend of mine ran me through this technique of how you can make someone feel really special while at the same time logic screams at them they should not.  Take a room full of people, 100 would do nicely, and tell them that one person in this room is a very special person, possibly the luckiest person on the planet and you can prove it. Split the room in two with roughly half the people on one side and half on the other. Assign one side of the room heads and the other tails. Now take out a coin and flip it. Have the side of the room which matches the outcome of the coin flip keep standing, the other side sits down. Split the room again and repeat the process until you have only one person standing. That person has survived repeated eliminations from the randomness of the coin flip and once they are the only one left standing they will feel that somehow providence was shining down on them. But the reality is that someone in that room had to survive the coin flip methodology, someone had to feel like the luckiest person, and yet knowing the outcome was inevitable they will still feel special, they can’t help it.

Possibly the only good thing to come out of the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be better knowledge and hopefully technology about how to deal with the next oil spill, for the odds are that it is not a matter of if, only when, until the next one. Situations where new actions need to be taken or new technologies developed to solve pressing problems can lead to advances from which benefits can be derived for more ordinary day-to-day problems. Many advances in medicine for instance have come out of the necessity generated by battlefield conditions during times of war and the oil spill in the gulf could easily be thought of as a battlefield. Patterns of behavior, why certain things are done (such as fishing for tainted food) or not done by humans can be exceedingly hard to predict, and harder still to modify, but there is something new on that front that is being worked upon.

There are groups of mathematicians and computer scientists who are using the tools of their trade, equations and algorithms, to predict the expected behavior patterns of terrorists. The techniques sift through vast quantities of assorted data, anything from cell phone calls, email and text messages to shopping receipts and airline manifests to develop the rules by which terrorists behave. The rules are probability driven, and once known, predictions, substantially better than using mere randomness can be made. These new techniques have already been used to uncover who is really making decisions in a terrorist organization, and another method or set of rules has been used to pinpoint hidden arms caches. Arms caches for instance need to be located in certain places to be successfully used. Too close to a target and they easy to find, too far away and the chances of getting caught while transporting them to the target increases. Knowing that terrorists want to strike at vulnerable or high value targets, it is possible to isolate probable locations and to extensively search those areas. So far this method has proven valuable to the army in locating stores of weapons. And importantly once predictions can be made regarding behavior, the next steps can be taken which is prevention or modification of those behaviors.

While these techniques are being developed for war-zone conditions, more widespread use will certainly be possible and that use will include employees at work as well as the customers of our organizations. We will be able to make better predictions regarding customer and employee behaviors and expected outcomes. And with better predictions, more knowledge of the rules that are employed to make decisions, more powerful behavior modifications will be possible as well. What might we want to employ these techniques upon? Better person-job fit, performance prediction and modification, customer preferences and buying intentions immediately spring to mind. But just as war-time advances can be misused if they fall into the wrong hands, these powerful techniques have the potential to be misused as well and will need to be surrounded by ethical guidelines to limit the amount of abuse that we are likely to see.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 27, 2010 at 9:32 pm

One Response

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  1. That fisherman example sounds like a classic case of cognitive dissonance. If he had an option to cheaply feed his family, my guess is that he would say it’s worth waiting till the tainted fish die out. But presumably he’s changing his opinions to be consistent with his behavior.

    I’m looking for a parallel that relates to the economy. In particular, go to an outplacement center and you’ll see that the 50 and up employee demographic is being hit hardest. How do employers justify losing this level of experience and talent? As one recently downsized employee told me, “they let me go, hired three college grads and an intern”. Will this help the recovery of the company? And is it the right thing to do ethically?

    While you’re all trying to figure this out, I’ll be in the kitchen frying fish in oil.

    Daniel Baitch

    July 30, 2010 at 12:48 pm

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