Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 20;   May 18, 2005: Irrational Self-Interest

Irrational Self-Interest

by

When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?

We often assume that people are motivated by rational self-interest. In this model of behavior, people make choices that they calculate will benefit them most, and most directly. If we want to predict behavior, or direct it, all we have to do is provide the right "incentives" or "disincentives" and we can get people to do what we need them to do.

Carrot and stickIf only Life were that simple.

Although predictions on the basis of the rational model can be successful, some have come to believe that strict adherence to the rational model is not only limiting, but often wrong.

The problem is that sometimes people don't choose rationally, and even when they do, they often choose differently from what we might expect if we consider only the content of the issue. Here are some reasons why.

It's always a judgment call
In the organizational context, the consequences of choices are rarely all good or all bad. People have to decide what they care about and how much, and people do differ.
Some people react to the past
Sometimes people don't
choose rationally. Even
when they do, they
apply their own judgment,
not yours.
Something about the situation might trigger responses from childhood, or from other experiences. People then react to those past experiences instead of reacting to the here-and-now.
Some are overloaded
Some people must choose quickly, because of real or perceived time pressure. In haste, they make choices that differ from those they would make if they felt they had more time.
Some feel peer pressure
Some make choices on the basis of the choices they perceive others making. They want either to be like others, or to be unlike others.
Some fear imaginary consequences
When they lack concrete knowledge, some people make up some pretty terrifying scenarios. Then they react to what they've imagined, instead of to what is.
Some have wrong information
The information on which they base choices can be wrong, out-of-date, or incomplete. Or they might have misunderstood or forgotten the information they did have.
Some seek revenge
Anger or thirst for revenge can cause some to make choices to harm others, ignoring (or blinded to) consequences that are seriously harmful to themselves.
Some have received bad advice
Even when people have all the facts right, some follow bad advice or misguided (or worse) leaders.
Some have cut deals
Sometimes people make choices that are counter to their own interests, because — rightly or otherwise — they expect someone else to intervene or to support them in another context.

Finally, some believe that the world consistently works in ways that it does not. This can cause them to make choices that might not be in their own self-interest — they might even choose to use the rational model to devise ways to influence the choices of others. Go to top Top  Next issue: An Agenda for Agendas  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit from the New Science of IrrationalityFor more on irrational decision making, see the report by Paul Solman on the May 10, 2005, edition of the PBS program The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. The report is available in text, streaming audio, or streaming video. It emphasizes the work of Terry Burnham, author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit from the New Science of Irrationality, published in 2005 by Wiley. Order from Amazon.com.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

The former New York skylineMarking Grief
Grief is usually a private matter, but for many, September Eleventh is different because our grief can be centered in the workplace. On September Eleventh, give yourself permission to do what you need for yourself, and give others permission to do what they need for themselves. Here are some choices.
The Bill of RightsEthical Influence: I
Influencing others can be difficult. Even more difficult is defining a set of approaches to influencing that almost all of us consider ethical. Here's a framework that makes a good starting point.
The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain ForestTeamwork Myths: I vs. We
In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.
A Protestant church in Tuttlingen, GermanyBlind Agendas
Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
Six atoms in a Schrödinger "cat" statePreventing Toxic Conflict: I
Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.

See also Emotions at Work, Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Saturn during equinox — a composite of natural-color images from CassiniComing May 22: Rescheduling Collaborative Work
Rescheduling is what we do when the schedule we have now is so desperately unachievable that we must let go of it because when we look at it we can no longer decide whether to laugh or cry. The fear is that the new schedule might come to the same end. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeAnd on May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.