14 August 2012

Bad Apples or Bad Barrels?

When some undesired behavior such as cheating, corruption etc. is discovered and at least one person is considered to be guilty, there is a saying that it’s just a “bad apple” that influenced the behavior of the group. Moreover, many people think that simply removing (and punishing) the “bad apple” is enough to get the behavior back on the desired path (for example honesty or hard work).

But, is it really just a problem of “a few bad apples”? For sure a few “bad apples” can lead to a generalized feeling that the inappropriate behavior is the “social norm” or in other words acceptable behavior, thus others (the apples that were not bad, but became bad) follow the norm and subsequently behave inappropriately but somehow acceptable. We can call this social contagion…

There is absolutely no doubt that people follow other people’s behavior. This is even truer when the followed ones are figures of authority, close or similar to the followers. However, this does not answer two major questions: First, what made the “bad apples” bad in the first place? Second: how come that the “good apples” imitated so easily the “bad apple’s” behavior?

The most important question is what made the “bad apples” bad in the first place? Objectively speaking there are very few people in the world that are intrinsically “Bad”. These are usually people with serious psychiatrically problems and very seldom get to be integrated in social structures such as public authorities, schools, businesses etc.

So if most likely the “bad apples” are not originally intrinsically bad, what made them become “bad”? It could be other “bad apples”, but that’s not actually answering the question. My opinion is that “bad apples” are simply people that are more predisposed to “get infected” by “bad barrels”. My (educated) guess is that (desired or undesired) behavior is contagious and the “bad apples” are simply the people with the weakest “immune system”. Bad apples are simply the first to exhibit the inappropriate behavior.

The key issue is the “barrel”. But first what is a barrel? In a very few words it is a system in which people are engaged (a company, a school, a social club, a government authority etc.). This system can be designed better or worse in terms of what type of behavior it wants to promote. A “bad barrel” is a system that makes it easy to exhibit undesired behavior. A “good barrel” is a system that actively discourages inappropriate behavior while promoting the appropriate one. The “apples” inside will behave as the “barrel” guides them. 

If the barrel is “bad” then at the beginning a few “apples” will become “bad” by behaving inappropriately and the other “apples” will follow their example. If the barrel is a good one at the beginning a few “apples” will become “golden” and subsequently the other “apples” will follow their example.

The second question “how come that the “good apples” imitated so easily the “bad apple’s” behavior?” has two answers: First, it is social contagion, namely people do what people around them do. However, this is not the only force acting here. Second, the “barrel” itself influences how the “apples” behave. 

Remember that a “barrel” influences all the “apples” inside it. If by a very small chance in a “good barrel” an “apple” goes “bad” the other “apples” most likely will not follow its behavior and even counter attack by taking measures of punishment or even kicking the “bad apple” out of the “good barrel”.

Now there is a very extensive discussion about what a “good” or a “bad barrel” actually is. Likewise, there is a huge array of tools to design “barrels” and many times they are ignored. This is a topic for another post.

The conclusion is that when you see an undesired behavior expanding, don’t blame and punish just the “bad apples”, start Redesigning your “barrel”. Unless you do so, simply punishing will make the behavior come back. 

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