Wednesday, November 19, 2014
The diminishing age of consequence
It may just be that I am becoming a grumpy old man but the idea of accountability seems to have disappeared from modern life. Perhaps told age has eroded my tolerance to the thinness of a battery egg shell, like Clint Eastwood in that wonderful movie Gran Torino.
The recent incident involving Kurtly Beale has brought this into sharp focus for me and I’ve been grappling with notions of values and personal responsibility for a week or so now. Like others, I am just gobsmacked that Australian Rugby would allow Beale back into the Australian side at all, let alone so quickly, after his atrocious behavior. Sending a disgusting and denigrating text to a work colleague would result in instant dismissal in any workplace with no parole. Not only did Beale get parole, it was cynically foreshortened. So, off goes Beale for a European holiday.
It hardly needs me to point out the message that this sends, especially young people, about values, about the way we can treat other people. It appears that it’s is OK to abuse someone in a way that is likely to damage them irreparably. That he is a man abusing a woman is an even more terrible reflection of our societal values, given he has been reprieved from all responsibility. The fact he copped a fine misses the point completely. In any case, $45,000 is nothing for a man of his financial status.
One of the topics covered in psychology 101 is the shaping of human behavior, how we learn. It is a terribly complex process but one of the simplest ways we learn is by understanding consequences. If your behavior is rewarded, or you see others rewarded for their behavior, then you are more likely to repeat that behaviour If reward is removed then a behaviour will be avoided of can be extinguished. We learn that there are consequences for what we do. One of the most powerful ways we learn is through the approval or disapproval of those people who are significant to us.
In this way we find out about what’s right and what’s wrong. If it all works out well we learn what it takes to live in harmony with other people, we find that empathy for others is a valuable tool in relationships, that caring is nice. Of course there is that 2 or 3 percent of people that never get it and turn out to be psychopaths. The rest of us are shaped by the ways others respond to us and how we feel about what we are doing.
Vicarious learning is responsible for shaping a lot of our behavior. We learn by watching others and how they get along when they do something. Again, it is usually most powerful when it involves people we are close to or admire. Parents are obviously big determinants of behavior in their children. But, other relatives, work colleagues, bosses, friends and, yes, celebrities can model our behavior too.
Before the next bit let me be clear that physical or other abusive forms of punishment are very poor at shaping behavior, at least in the long term. You’ll get compliance but not a change in behavior or attitude. All we do when we do this is teach someone to be similarly violent or abusive. If you don’t want to believe me then please look at the evidence. It is overwhelming that physical punishment is not a deterrent or a game changer.
But, consequences are critical. I have seen many parents shake their heads at the selfish antics of their children, people look totally confused when their partner leaves them, be angry at their inability to get a promotion, or depressed that no-one seems to like them. Many of them failed to understand the consequences of not understanding consequences.
It’s the same in workplaces. Even in this age of apparent enlightenment we see bullying behavior such as that exhibited by Beale. In many cases the consequences are minimal, if there any at all. Bullying remains a critical issue in many organisations. But also endemic are failures of leadership, a failure to live up to common values such as honesty and integrity, and lack of engagement. Similarly, we endorse the vapid behavior of our politicians, their dishonesty, their self-interest, their disingenuousness. Our news media has become morally bankrupt, controlled as they are by self-interest. The truth is a leaf on the wind.
Our silences, our lack of outrage, is deafening and it provides the endorsement, the consequences of bad behavior.