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Privacy, Persuasion and Fundamental Rights

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Perhaps, not surprisingly, it started with a lie. In 1957, James Vicary, on a hot summer day, in a Fort Lee, NJ movie theater, claimed to have run an experiment where he said he inserted frames into a movie and flashed on the screen the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola”. He claimed this subliminal (meaning literally below threshold) advertising resulted in huge increases in the sales of popcorn (up 58%) and Coca Cola (up 18%).  Vicary stated that subliminal communication was so powerful and had such potentially dangerous uses that he suggested warning the public when subliminal techniques were in use, and even seemed to think that some sort of governmental regulation might be needed.

Congress held hearings, legislation was proposed, but not passed. The public felt they were being manipulated. Norman Cousins, editor of The Saturday Review, warned his readers about subliminal communications. Among the uses his article warned about was the potential to manipulate voting patterns for political candidates and influence the outcome of an election.

On the fifth anniversary of his “experiment”, Vicary admitted that it was a hoax, a ruse and that his goal was to revive his failing consulting practice (Advertising Age, Sept 17, 1962). Apparently, his thinking was it did not matter if his findings were real or not, just that his potential clients believed that they were real. By this time, he was the director of survey research for Dun & Bradstreet as he attempted to resurrect his career as a psychologist.  Some question whether the insertion of the words ever took place.

So, is subliminal perception and its ability to influence people pure bunk? Thijs Verwijmeren,  (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2011) came to a conclusion that subliminal advertising can have some limited effect, but it is not all that powerful. Subliminal ads, for instance, can’t make you do something you don’t want to do. Others question the very concept. If something can’t be perceived, because it is subliminal, how can it possibly affect behavior? The notion is that you can affect the subconscious mind without the conscious mind being aware of the affect. Regardless of the efficacy of this particular technique, the temptation to influence people, to change their behaviors continues, through various other avenues and methods.

Classical economic theory states that humans are rational thinkers and make decisions that are in their best economic interest after considering all the facts. Much economic policy over the years has been based on this concept and of course it is wrong, for humans are anything but cool, rational thinkers as they work through their decisions. We all take short-cuts in our decision-making using bias, heuristics or rules-of-thumb to get through the day (these are decisions or judgements we make without necessarily being conscious we are making them). Without them the number of decisions you would be required to make would simply paralyze you. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists, drove those points home with a substantial body of research that gave rise to the field of Behavioral Economics. One cornerstone of their work was their definition and description of System 1 and System 2 type of thinking that humans use to make decisions.

System 1 thinking is automatic decision-making. It is quick and easy, requiring little to no effort when making a decision or passing judgement. System 1 thinking speeds decision-making and allows you to make thousands of unthinking decisions each and every day. The path you will drive to work, what you are likely to order in your morning coffee, do you put butter or cream cheese on your English muffin are all quick, ponderless, System 1 decisions you make. System 2 is when you use deliberative thought in order to make a decision. For instance, if you are ordering a new PC or Mac, if you are like most people, you methodically work through your options and the associated costs, prior to making a decision on what equipment to buy and how to configure it. You may check with friends and read reviews, part of your decision may be based on brand loyalty or a “coolness” factor that you perhaps can’t quite articulate, or one of our many human biases, such as WYSIATI, which stands for “What you see is all there is”, may come into play. Meaning you choose from the options before you and tend not to look for less obvious or unseen options. And you can be assured that the manufacturers of these devices are doing their best to influence your decision.

The speed limit sign says “30 MPH”, the sign on the escalator says “Stand Right, Walk Left”, in the parking garage there are signs that say “small cars only”, the express checkout line at the grocery store says “8 items or less”. We are informed that in order to enroll our kindergarten-aged child into school that we have to show proof of vaccination. All around us, every day there are attempts to influence our behavior, to modify what we are doing or to inform us what is allowable and what is not. While not perfectly so, these rules tend to be imposed when your behavior has the potential to negatively impact others around you, either directly or indirectly. The reason you are not trained to drive with a “use your best judgement on what your speed should be”, is 1. You may not be familiar with the road you are on, 2. If left to their own devices, some people’s judgement (especially younger or inexperienced drivers) might not be that good, 3. There is a tremendous potential for harm occurring to others if you make a poor decision. So, a sign is posted that informs you what is an appropriate speed for that road (and there are consequences to violating that sign’s speed limit). Your child’s ability to spread disease and contribute to epidemics (not in a good way) is the reason for the vaccination (and it does not matter if what you personally believe about vaccinations and autism goes against all the known science – no vaccination, no school – another penalty).

Writing in Scientific American (March 30, 2018), Marcello Lenca and Effy Vayena, describe Cognitive Liberty as “the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses.” This was written in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal where, in an attempt to influence the last presidential election, at least 87 million Facebook users, unbeknown to them, were targeted for customized digital ads and other manipulative information in a manner that “circumvents user’s awareness of such influence”. And that is the key difference between a speed limit sign, a vaccination requirement and subliminally trying to get you to drink more Coca Cola.  One approach is direct and in-your-face, it is transparent, while the other tries to influence you without you realizing you are being influenced. They continue, “most of the current online ecosystem, is an arm’s race to the unconscious mind: notifications, microtargeted ads, autoplay plugins, are all strategies to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate”.

The Cambridge Analytica CEO in an undercover interview with Channel 4 News in the UK stated, that it did not matter whether something was real and factual, just that people believed that it was. People, of course, are more inclined to believe information that supports their existing viewpoint, whether it is real or not. Remember Pizzagate – the falsehood spread by certain websites that specialize in spreading falsehoods and the alt-right during the election, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a Pizza Parlor, except she wasn’t and the accused Pizza Parlor did not even have a basement. But never-the-less, a true believer went to that Pizza Parlor with his gun and started firing in a System 1 thinking pattern. He never paused to consider the information he was receiving in a rational manner. The shooter viewed himself as a “good guy with a gun” going to stop bad people, except it was all a delusion meant to influence behavior. A delusion that was crafted by the inappropriate use of big data to find people’s fears, to manipulate them and to capitalize on them. So here you have potentially deadly consequences to falsehoods spread on social media, for which there is no penalty.

It wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last time that occurs.  And to underscore that this wasn’t some accident, during the last presidential election you also had Republican operatives making statements on TV interviews such as “we are not going to let facts determine the outcome of this election”, or we are presenting “alternative facts”, in other words just like James Vicary’s “Drink Coca Cola” ruse, it did not matter whether it was real or not, just that a population critical to your success, potential customers or in the case of an election, potential voters, believed that it was real.  And because of that orientation and the lack of regulation or penalties around it, the spread of disinformation, enabled by social media and Russia attacking our democracy, reached unprecedented levels.

Our technology, once again, is much more advanced than the social structures we surround it with, at least at first.  Partly that is due to pace of innovation being quite a bit faster than the pace of social structure change. But this is nothing new. For instance, when we, as a species, starting writing down our stories, our gurus at that time were those who could read. They assumed a special elevated status within society and because of their skill set they were the bearers of the “word” and able to manipulate and persuade the masses, for who could argue with someone about a text that you could not read? The priests of today are those who can create and harness the technology that can influence the masses and those who can build smart systems to enable that to happen more effectively.  In a special section on AI appearing in The Economist (March 31st-April 6th, 2018), it was estimated that for each capable AI tech person in a company today, the value of that company increases by 5 to 10 million dollars, so it is no wonder that sophisticated AI talent today draw 6- and 7- figure salaries.

Sander van der Linden in Psychological Weapons of Mass Persuasion, (Scientific American, April 10th 2018), quotes a study covering 3.5 million people which “found that psychologically tailored advertising, i.e. matching the content of a persuasive message to an individual’s broad psychographic profile, resulted in 40% more clicks and 50% more online purchases than mismatched or unpersonalized messages”.  We have come a long way, with the help of our technology, from flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola” on a screen. And more importantly he states that these messages when carried over into a political environment can have the ability to either suppress voting for the candidate these messages are targeted against or can swing some potential voters to switch candidates. When elections are often decided by a percentage point or two, that small effect can have a large impact. In addition to the USA presidential election, it now appears that Britain’s EU exit vote was influenced using the same techniques.

So yes, we are at risk, in an unregulated, wild-west of a technology world, elections can be affected, Cognitive Liberty, our very democracy can be undermined, autocrats/dictators or would-be tin-pot dictators with effective social media disinformation and targeted voting campaigns can be voted in. What can we do?

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, stated in a recent townhall meeting in Chicago that “privacy is a human right”.  That aligns him with his predecessor, Steve Jobs, who in 2010 stated, “”Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly.” “I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

The European Union has just enacted GDPR or General Data Protection Regulations, which does align with the sentiments of both Steve Jobs and Tim Cook. In a nutshell, among the GDPR requirements are that individuals give permission for their data to be collected, be informed regarding what data is being collected, how it will be used, how and for how long it will be stored, and at any time they can see what data you have on them and they can demand that they be erased from your systems. There are many other requirements as well and violations result in large fines. In an editorial, The Economist recently called for the USA to adopt the EU data protection regulations.

But in addition to protecting the data we can work towards making people savvier about what they see on social media and how to determine reality from delusion or disinformation. For instance, some possibilities include (and I am sure if a group put their minds to it, many more possibilities would emerge):

  • Transparency can be increased, for instance, just like restaurants in NYC get cleanliness ratings, social media sites can get ratings regarding the veracity of the information they carry. Is the information verified in any fashion or is it just put out there?
  • Sites that label themselves as news, or TV stations that label themselves as news should adhere to certain news worthy standards in order to keep that designation. Each program should be clearly labeled as meeting “news standards” or should be clearly labeled “opinion” not just at the start of the show, but the whole time the show is on.
  • News organizations used to adhere to a separation of church and state. Meaning the news side of the business should not be influenced by the business side of the business. To achieve a certain news rating this standard would have to be met.
  • One method towards getting people to become better consumers of information is to educate them on how humans consume information and make decisions. It is a first step towards taking them out of System 1 thinking when appropriate and having them activate System 2 thinking.
  • Penalties can be implemented for knowingly spreading false information.

Social media now has the power to cause great harm to others and to our society. As the saying goes with great power comes great responsibility, but so far social media has not proven itself capably of operating in that responsible fashion. We are in a variation of the “Tragedy of the Commons” moment when it comes to social media. The tragedy of the commons describes a situation where individuals acting independently put their own self-interest above a common interest in a shared resource. Because each is only concerned about their own interest, they each use the resource until it is despoiled and of no use to anyone. Collective action is needed to save the resource so it can be used by all to mutual benefit. While originally the concept of the commons was based on shared unregulated grazing ground over the years it has morphed to mean “any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator”. While social media is an unlimited resource, it too will be despoiled if it is only used by individuals for their own self-interest without regard to the harm it is causing others and to society.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 15, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Outrage Fatigue

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These statements are my personal views and not necessarily the views of any other person at my company.

With another mass murder of children, this time at the Parkland, Florida high school and the response of this administration and many of those in Congress, I have reach the limits of my ability to be polite and to regard other points of view as legitimate. Weapons, designed for warfare and our military, capable of inflicting mass murder within a few seconds simply have no place in society. This should not be a Republican issue or a Democratic issue, this is simply a common-sense and decency issue. The removal of these weapons from our society should have happened a long time ago. The evidence is incontrovertible. Societies with more guns have more gun crime. Period. Households with guns have higher incidences of death, injuries or suicides then households without guns. The idea that you are an exception to that finding is a fantasy. The idea that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun is a fantasy. It is a fantasy, based on a mythology that has been perpetrated upon the American people, by people who have a financial stake in the perpetuation of that hero myth and by those who wish to see our society fall apart. It is more than time to take the gloves off and to stand up for what is right, for the hopes and aspirations of America, for the dreams that America once represented to the world, for what America is supposed to stand for.

Every day in the news we see continue evidence of a Trump administration whose malevolence is moderated only by its complete and sheer incompetence. If the administration had more competent bureaucrats, the speed at which they are damaging people, damaging our institutions, damaging our democracy, damaging our world standing and damaging our planet would be greatly magnified. Luckily the most competent people want nothing to do with this administration and are staying away. I am not the first one to make that statement.

The sheer volume, day-after-day of horrendous news, and the absolute stupidity of the decisions being made, the self-dealing, the self-enrichment, the refusal to deal with Russia that has all but declared open warfare on us, the attempt to decimate the free press and our legal and judicial institutions, the wanton elimination of regulation, the repudiation of science, the refusal to recognize climate change and global warming as a threat (and to work towards mitigating the threat), the repudiation of diplomacy, the repudiation of morality and justice, the embrace of neo-Nazi’s and the extreme right-wing, the kowtowing to the NRA, it simply boggles the imagination, and day after day those of us who care deeply about our country and this planet are feeling more and more outrage fatigue. How much longer can it go on before permanent damage is done? Trump and his ilk have become more than tiresome.

Those who work in this administration seemingly fall into one of four buckets. 1. they are drawn to power and are willing to do anything to be within the inner ring of power, to advance their own agendas, and/or enrich themselves, even if it means abandoning all their previously held principles; 2. some are simply racist, xenophobic/anti-immigrant, misogynist, anti-LGBTQ rights, or anti-Semitic and this administration’s views align with their own; 3. a few seem to see themselves as guardians, hoping to moderate this abomination of an administration and safeguard our democracy. The short-lived CEO panels, which were disbanded, seemingly fell into this latter category; or 4. they are career people who were in place well before this administration and see themselves as being there well after they are gone.

I am not bound by the Goldwater Rule (which prohibits psychiatric diagnosis without personally seeing a patient) for I am not a clinician. (The American Psychoanalytic Association has lifted the Goldwater Rule, the American Psychiatric Association has left it in place and I am a member of neither). I see no patients, but in addition to being the CEO of an organizational consulting company, I teach leadership in an MBA program, and let me be very clear Donald Trump would fail my class. In fact, in addition to his actions being a clear and present danger to the United States, he is a very clear example of how not to lead (and also how not to negotiate) and any of my students would be able to point-by-point describe why this is so.  Now I don’t think the fault is all under his control for I am quite convinced that his mental state has quite a bit to do with it.

Some psychiatrists and psychologists call Trump’s pattern of behavior Malevolent Narcissism, that is narcissism taken to a level that includes psychopathic tendencies and malevolent means that it causes harm to others. Others would use the term the Dark Triad which are a series of illnesses that are often co-morbid, meaning they tend to occur together. The Dark Triad consists of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Why do I think he is a clear and present danger to the United States? Let me take just one of those illnesses, the psychopathy as an example. Psychopaths have been shown to have a weaker or non-existent connection between the emotional center of the brain (the amygdala) and the centers of higher thought processes (the pre-frontal cortex).  Now not all psychopaths fall into a life of crime, but an unusually high percentage of those in prison would be diagnosed as psychopaths (utilizing the Hare checklist). What characteristics of a psychopath lead them to prison? Here are some common characteristics that psychopaths exhibit.

(WARNING: Just because you know someone who has some of these characteristics does not make them a psychopath. A clinician would say that these traits must rise to a level where they interfere with day-to-day functioning to be pathological).

  • Exploitive, opportunistic, can be successful in life, but often that success is short-lived
  • Take credit for others successes, but blame others for failures
  • They can be charismatic and persuasive
  • Pay a lot of attention to their appearance, with a desire to look attractive
  • Aggression, racism, bullying is often evident
  • Assertiveness, dominance, self-importance, self-aggrandizement
  • Limited self-control, higher risk taking, short-duration marriages and multiple spouses or multiple affairs
  • Low scores on honesty and humility with high scores on greediness
  • Psychopaths are notorious for a lack of emotion and empathy, the ability to understand right from wrong or to understand the emotions that someone else is feeling
  • And, those with these traits generally lack self-awareness – the ability to see how their behavior is perceived by others.

With no ability to determine right from wrong, no inherent morality, throw in a lack of self-control and a good dose of greediness and it becomes easy to see how this illness can lead to a life of crime.  It is sometimes difficult for a non-clinical person to really understand a phrase like “no ability to determine right from wrong”. It is not that they choose not to, it is that the psychopath literally can’t. If faced with a clearly moral choice and a clearly immoral choice (and no external clues, or intellectual experience with a similar choice) the psychopath would simply be unable to pick the morally correct thing to do. It just does not compute to them. Psychopaths can be quite smart, or not, but those who are smart can be even more of a danger. As Warren Buffet states when he picks people to work for him (paraphrased), “they have to have integrity and intelligence, and if the don’t have the first the second one will kill you”.

Now, I know quite a few people (clinicians and other psychologists) who feel that we should not label our current president as mentally ill. Some of them feel that mental illness has enough stigma already and to use that as a reason to remove the president would be to simply increase that stigma. Their feeling is that he should be removed for the actions he takes and not his mental state. Those of you who are old enough to remember, just before Nixon resigned, his mental state and his drinking was such that the defense secretary told the military not to carry out any orders for a military or nuclear strike without the approval of the defense secretary, which was unconstitutional, but may have saved us from a nuclear holocaust. Nothing like a good war to take the nation’s mind off of impeachment, in a Wag-the-Dog fashion.

A good portion of people have at some point in their lives short-term mental illness from which they recover. For instance, it is quite normal to be depressed at the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or from some other traumatic event. It can be like having the flu, it can knock you down for a period of time. And at any point in time 6% of the population is suffering from some level of depression. Depression becomes problematic when there is no recovery after a period of time and it interferes ongoing with day-to-day life.  Today most people can recover from depression or anxiety (also 6% incidence), with proper treatment.

The question though, should someone, the most powerful person on this planet, someone who can, at the push of a button, destroy this planet, (as much as I throw-up into my mouth when I think about that), be held to the same standard as anybody on the street? Are the risks simply too high?  To me the answer is “yes” the risks are too high. This current president represents a danger to us all, a danger to our children, a danger to our grandchildren, a danger to life on earth. I am not being dramatic. Clearly a full mental evaluation is in order for a mentally healthy person would simply not act in the manner of this current president.

With incident after incident, with each news cycle bringing more absurdity and each absurdity generating outrage, outrage fatigue sets in easily. My father, though he usually did not want to talk about it, at times told me stories about how during WWII in France and in Germany the level of fatigue he felt was unbearable. But he persevered, because the alternative was even more unbearable.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 18, 2018 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

The Air We Breathe

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I should be working on a proposal tonight (it is due soon), for that represents the future of my company. But I decided I needed to take a break and write about the future of the planet, for that is much more important. Today, the United States pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, which aligns us with the other 2 countries in the world which also don’t participate – Syria and Nicaragua. So now we are similar to two other outstanding pillars of the global community. Syria, which is really no longer functioning as a country, Nicaragua and the United States now share similar pedigrees. But the reason to do something, to behave in a certain way, should not be driven by simply what everyone else is doing, it should be driven by scientific evidence, by fact and by reasoned thinking, three areas which have recently taken a beating by the leadership of the USA.

But let’s take a step back and look at what we know about what people around the world want. These tend to be universal findings and there is no or little difference when you examine these results by region, culture or other demographics you care to. In literally thousands of studies commissioned by companies who wanted to know what their employees want, what motivates them, some common patterns emerge. These patterns are pretty easily transferred beyond the workplace to what people in general desire.

What do employees want?

I can go on and list some other things, but fundamentally this list covers the vast majority, the basics of what is important. You can substitute the word “employees” with “people”. Let’s look at the more fundamental things an employee or a citizen might want and not even consider to be debatable. Just what are the basics of what a citizen of a country should expect?

Should you be given air to breathe? Many people would consider that to be a ludicrous question. Should you be given air to breathe? Get real, air is all around us no one can limit it.  But, what if you lived on Mars and air had to be manufactured or shipped in? What if you were viewed as a drag on the colony, a non-optimal performer. Should you be given air to breathe? Most people would still argue that death through asphyxia is not an appropriate punishment for poor performance. Maybe the leadership on Mars would work with you in an attempt to improve your performance before cutting off your oxygen supply.

Should you have access to clean water to drink? Like air, without water we would all die within a few days. Access to clean, potable water is fundamental to life.

Should you be given food to eat? For one congressman from Nebraska that answer to that question is no. He refused to answer the question whether everyone in the USA has a right to food. And that is really no different than air or water, except that it takes longer to die from no food. Presumably he feels that certain people who are not contributing to society as much as he is (and his contribution is certainly debatable in my mind), that they are not worthy of receiving food.

Let me take another step back and introduce you to John Rawls. He is a noted philosopher who has done extensive work in the area of justice. He developed a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance” to help people figure out whether a rule or regulation was just or gave inappropriate advantages to certain groups. The concept with the veil is that you are ignorant to which group you belong as you consider the rule or regulation and its implications for justice. Since most people writing rules or regulations are part of a privileged class, the thought experiment is aimed at opening people’s minds to other points of view. Perhaps our Nebraska congressman, instead of getting paid by the government, was out of work, unable to find employment or was unable to work due to some other factor. Perhaps he had children that, due to his inability to work, often went to bed at night hungry. How would he feel about his position about whether everyone should have access to food? The veil suggests he might feel differently, if it was his children that were starving to death or growing up stunted physically or mentally.

The Paris Climate Accords is squarely aimed at the fundamentals of life. Should we not change the current path we are on, access to water, to food, the very quality of the air we breathe will be diminished. No one else, no other country, entity or being, is going to take care of this problem for us. If we don’t act, not only is our society threatened, but life itself on the entire planet. The United States, rather than making decisions based on its privileged state, needs to use the veil and look at the larger question of what is just for the entire planet. Participation in the Accords affords us the opportunity to resume the global leadership role we have abandoned, to become the example for others to once again follow, and economically, we will benefit from being a technological leader in an alternative energy future that is only going to become more dominant over time. We will also have a planet we can live on, for ourselves and our children.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 1, 2017 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Ethics

Beyond the Pale

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If I used my life savings and opened a pizza parlor, and I wanted it to be successful, who would I hire to run that pizza parlor for me? Would I hire someone who really knew how to make great pizza or would I hire someone who had never made a pizza before? Maybe someone who thought that ketchup was the same thing as tomato sauce (or gravy)? Would the person I hire need to know how to treat my customers, how to hire and motivate a staff, how to run a cash register and all the other things required to run a successful small business?  Or could they just learn it over time? Could they learn it before they ran my pizza parlor into the ground, forcing me into bankruptcy? Am I willing to take that risk?

But here we are. We have a president and his appointees who are learning how to ruin, sorry I meant run, run a country with on-the-job training being done every day. The person in charge of tackling global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, doesn’t believe it is real, the person in charge of the improving our public schools doesn’t believe in public education, the person in HHS in charge of contraception doesn’t believe contraception works, the person in charge of providing public housing to the poor believes that public housing coddles them, the person in charge of the DOE did not realize that one of its tasks was to protect the nation’s nuclear arsenal (oops), the person who regulates what can go into kids school lunches rolled back regulations which attempted to ensure that kids had healthier lunches, the first person who was National Security Advisor had to resign because of ties to Russia, the latest pick to run the Army had to withdraw because of discriminatory comments made about LGBTQ folks, the person in charge of regulatory reform is an activist investor who buys interests in companies and then squeezes the life out of them to turn a profit, the list of misfits to positions goes on and on. These are not the kind of people you would appoint to run your pizza parlor if you wanted it to be successful, maybe turn it into a chain. These are the kind of people you would appoint if you were purposefully looking to shut down your pizza parlor because you did not want it to work, to be successful. (Why would someone do that after investing their life savings to open the pizza parlor in the first place? Our founding fathers invested a hell of a lot more than their life saving to create this country.)  These are the kind of people you would put into place to “starve the beast” which is a Republican tactic for shrinking government.

There is a mistake that many managers in business make. They create rules and regulations for the 5%. Most people, the vast majority of people, want to come to work, want to do a good job, want the organization to succeed and want to have success along with the organization. The evidence for that is abundant and abundantly clear. Yet many managers in companies simply can’t bring themselves to believe that or don’t know it, and so they create rules to manage the population as though they were all looking to “get away” with things. They put into place onerous rules on the 95% rather the managing the misbehavior or issues of the 5%. The result of that can be stifling to the 95% who are really interested in doing good work.  In my company, yes, it is small, our vacation policy is “Take some, make sure your work is covered”. Our HR Policy is summed us as “Use your common sense, violators will be persecuted”.  We are open 24/7/365. You pick your holidays and manage your schedule. In other words, we try to manage for the 95%. The 5% who are not able to work that way? We deal with them individually. People new to the organization often take some time to adjust to being treated this way. Some have a harder time than others adjusting to the freedom after a lifetime of rules being imposed.

I recently marched in a demonstration to support my immigrant neighbors, yes in some sense that is all of us, because unless you are a Native American, you too are an immigrant. But this march was to support more recent immigrants who feel threatened by this administration. The rules being imposed today do not treat the immigrants as the 95% who contribute, pay taxes and are real contributors to our society. The rules are written for the 5% or less, just like many businesspeople do as they write rules for their organizations. Yes, within the 5% there could be criminals or worse, but you treat them as individual criminals and you do not blanket a whole population because of the actions of a few. (Under the Geneva convention, if you punish an entire population for the actions of a few, and you did that during a war, you would be committing a war crime).  By stifling the 95% because we are trying to control the 5% we are losing all sorts of potential as a country. The data shows that immigrants, regardless of what the administration says, commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, are more likely to become scientists, doctors, engineers etc. Are you over 40 and still alive? You likely have science and an immigrant to thank. Immigrants start businesses, pay taxes, participate in community events and become leaders. They came here for the same reason our grandparents came, to find a better life for themselves and their children. You should not be surprised by this statement.

My grandparents came to this country to escape the Pale of Settlement. It was an area within Russia which was the only area in which Jews could live. There were some few exceptions made. Conditions within the Pale for the Jews were extremely harsh. The word Pale is a derivative of the Latin word for stake – meaning stakes in the ground, a figurative wall in this case, beyond which Jews could not live. The term “Beyond the Pale”, came from the notion that living outside of the Pale was unacceptable for Jews. Today, if something is “Beyond the Pale” it means it is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. The actions of this administration towards science, environmental regulations, healthcare, housing, women, minorities, immigrants, other vulnerable populations, as well as on a host of other issues is Beyond the Pale.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 7, 2017 at 10:07 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

Paroxysms of Populism

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I simply can’t believe what I see when I look at the candidacy of Donald Trump. How has the Republican Party, a main-stream political party devolved to reach such a low as to nominate a candidate that has the Klu Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and other assorted racists and white supremacists advocating for its candidate? A candidate who numbers among his supporters a former KGB leader, Vladimir Putin, an autocrat and dictator running a corrupt kleptocracy, whose political and otherwise perceived opponents mysteriously disappear or die, who thinks nothing of bombing hospitals, and who actively supports Trump’s bid for the USA’s highest office with espionage.

Other support from the world of national leaders comes from Kim Jong-un, the missile-firing dynastic despot who kills people for “not showing the right attitude” during meetings, or for being perceived as a threat to his rule and from the Iranian hard right who want to dismantle the treaty that reduced their nuclear capability. So 2/3rd of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” support the current Republican candidate. With this kind of support and role models it is no wonder that Trump threatens to imprison his political opponents, to make it easier to go after critical journalists and who constantly states that they only way he can lose is if the system is “rigged” against him. While it is easy to despair about the candidate, calling into question not only his policy positions but also his mental fitness, it is even more disappointing that he has garnered any support, let alone significant support from a proportion of the American public. This is not who we are or at least, based on the ideals of the founding fathers, not who we are supposed to be.

But we have been here before. Previously during times of economic and demographic transition the country has lurched toward populism, nativism, protectionism and the fear-mongering that we are currently seeing. And while as a national movement these periods have been relatively short-lived, there always has remained an undercurrent of baser populism by people who feel threatened by change or are simply racist, misogynist and xenophobic.

John Adams, perhaps the most religious of the founding fathers, signed a series of laws collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed for the imprisonment and deportation of non-citizens deemed “dangerous” or were from a hostile nation, and criminalized the making of false statements against the federal government. The argument was made that these laws were required to strengthen national security during a time of uncertainty.

The rise of the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s, which began as the American Republican Party then became the Native American Party, and then later simply the American Party, came about because of a fear of the immigration of large numbers of Germans and Irish Catholics. A California chapter opposed Chinese immigration. This anti-immigrant party, whose base was protestant men, saw conspiracies everywhere they looked and when members carried out various criminal acts and were questioned their response was “I know nothing”. Abraham Lincoln despaired about the No-Nothings: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

And more recently, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, during the spring of 1942, well over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps because of fears over their loyalty. Reviews of this policy later on could find little to no evidence of disloyalty among these citizens and the motivations for this forced internment were identified as institutional racism.

While it is easy to say that these episodic periods of populism were economically driven, and to an extent they were, they are also driven by some basic human tendencies towards tribalism and to see “otherness” as a threat rather than a benefit to society. But the evidence is incontrovertible, immigration rather than being the threat that these movements perceive has powered this country to the heights of economic prosperity and to be a leader in scientific and industry innovation. After all, except for a very few of us, we are all immigrants.

From a business and organizational health standpoint prosperity is not achieved by walling yourself or your organization off from the rest of the world, but by embracing it. Ronald Reagan who is often used as the ideal icon of the Republican Party stated in his farewell address to the nation: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still”. You have to wonder what Reagan would say about what his party has become.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 10, 2016 at 11:10 am


with 2 comments

Dehumanization. A reference number tattooed on an arm is a powerful method of turning a person into something less. Dehumanization when paired with and justified by vilification eases the gathering and slaughter. Dehumanization is a slippery slope and those who initiate the process count on it being that way in order to help gather and maintain their power. It takes a group and turns them into the “other”, the source of a society’s problems. It takes the causality of problems from being systemic or internally focused and moves it to a sub-group within society or an outside group that can be labeled as threatening to that society. In either case the thinking is that the group needs to be dealt with and cast out. The logic is that if only we dealt with the “other” we could go back to the good old days or the way things should be, that our lives would be improved. The good old days themselves are a fantasy that exists only in the mind of the angry and aggrieved for they were never good for most. It may start with rumor, a libel, and then proceed to claims of injury, injustice, criminality, and how the “other” receives unfair benefits at your expense. It then moves to humiliation of the “other”, the use of symbols and identification to make them better stand out, for without the symbols and identification we may not be able to tell if they are them or us. The next step may be the building of a wall to keep them out or perhaps inside a ghetto, followed by legislated de-legitimization of the “other”, taking away rights or the ability to receive fair treatment perhaps imposing penalties for being “other”. Once legislation is in place the next steps are easy, for solutions can be found, perhaps even a final solution. Conducting horrendous acts against the “other” can bind the rest of the group together more strongly and helps unite them in common purpose.

Yet, even as there are those who are ready to vilify “others” for their own gain, there are those who are willing to stand against this pattern of human behavior that has repeated itself over the millennia. It cannot be allowed to happen once again. We must remember that we are more similar than we are different, that we all potentially can succumb to human bias and prejudice and most of all we must remember that we are all human. One person who stood against this pattern of abuse has left us. He was numbered A-7713 by the Nazi’s, but his human name was Elie Wiesel. I will always remember him and I will also remember what he stood for, his dignity and desire to fight against injustice rising out of the ashes and tragedy of his childhood.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 2, 2016 at 6:25 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

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OV co-sponsors Psychology Day at UN – Jeff Saltzman’s opening Remarks – 042816

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Thank you all for coming. It is most gratifying that such an urgent issue as the migration crisis brings forth such a high level of interest among both our clients and friends.

I hope you find today’s panel discussion on the migration crisis, whether caused by global warming, war, violence, or other factors facing so many of our fellow humans both educational and inspirational.

From an educational standpoint, what you may find is that traumatic events which displace people don’t necessarily bring forth new challenges that we have never faced before, but greatly magnify those that exist around all of us every day. Displacement, the loss of identify, the need to reintegrate people into society and help them find their worth are challenges that occur every day all around us, but are greatly magnified, more challenging and often more urgent with migrants.

During 911, for instance, we were in the midst of an employee survey for a financial services firm and part of the employee population completed the survey prior to 911 and part afterwards. One conclusion from that study was that traumatic events greatly magnify challenges that exist daily, challenges that must be met for the successful operation of our society and the organizations that reside within.

Organizations and the employees within go through changes in leadership, reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, new people coming and old friends going. They also experiences changes in the environment in which they operate. Each of these events can cause changes in status, influence, security, and the sense of having a positive future for oneself and potentially one’s family. These challenges, while they do not rise to the level of those who are displaced in a migration event, never-the-less share some common characteristics.  So as the panel discussion unfolds ask yourself how these same psychological concepts play out in your own organizations.

I hope you draw inspiration from the efforts that people around the world are putting forth to assist migrants and from the migrants themselves. There is, of course, always more that can be done. In our upcoming book, Creating the Vital Organization, Scott Brooks and I discuss the resilience that people have when given an appropriate environment to recover from challenges. It is truly remarkable. To quote the noted Psychologist, Ann Masten, an expert on human resilience, “The greatest surprise of resilience research is the ordinariness of the phenomena”.

The lesson learned – if we reach out and help those who are suffering from migration events, or when we reach out to our own employees experiencing various challenges, they can bounce back. They simply need a helping hand.

OV is proud to support the UN and help enhance UN deliberations through organizational psychology. Should anyone want to stay afterwards and continue the discussion we would be happy to join you. Thank you and enjoy the day.  Jeff

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 29, 2016 at 7:05 am

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