Monday, 23 March 2020

The problem with distrust

A lot of people are condemning those who have been stripping supermarket shelves for being greedy and selfish.  There’s obviously an element of truth in that, but it isn’t the whole story, and it overlooks the vital question of trust – or rather distrust.
Many years ago, I was on a management training course where the attendees were split into three groups to play a game which was a variation on the well-known ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’.  In three separate rooms, and able to communicate only via an intermediary, the three teams had the choice in each round to decide whether to try and co-operate or compete; if all teams co-operated every round then the total number of points gained would be maximised.  My team (and I claim some credit for influencing things in this direction) opted to play the co-operative route every round, but the other teams went for competition.  My team ended up with ‘nul points’, whilst both the other teams scored well.  But the total number of points gained by both the other teams was less than could have been achieved by a more collaborative approach which shared rather than accumulated the points.  I suspect that different people learned different lessons from the exercise – some learned that co-operation benefits all, whilst others learned only that people seeking to co-operate are displaying a weakness which can be exploited.  I’m not sure that the game really contributed much to the objective of the course.
The parallel with panic-buying is this: after the first round, those who chose to believe that there was plenty of food and that they should think of others have been left with very little, whilst those who bought everything in sight have more than they can eat.  So, what card should we play in the second round?  It’s important to note that whilst greed and selfishness might be motivating some, the more important motivation is the belief that ‘others’ will be so motivated; even those whose instinct is to act for the collective good can find themselves doing the opposite because they cannot depend on everyone else to think the same way.  And when ‘nul points’ = no food, it’s not easy to condemn that.  Distrust is a pervasive and corrosive thought process.
An appeal to people to behave differently coming from politicians who’ve been telling us for decades that there’s nothing wrong with greed, that everyone should look after themselves, and that the state has no, or only a limited, role in ensuring fairness cannot resonate.  It’s at odds with everything that they’ve said before.  Some politicians have been trying to evoke the so-called blitz spirit by way of precedent for the way we should act in a crisis.  It’s a very poor comparison based on a rose-tinted view of events, which overlooks the fact that an approximation to food equality came about not because of an outbreak of collectivism, but because rationing was imposed by central government.  And alongside that, there were widespread black markets where those with the wherewithal could still get more than their share. 
I instinctively want to play the co-operative game, and I have long believed that humanity can achieve more overall by working together than by competing, but the idea that collectivism can be born suddenly because a bumbling congenital liar expresses a vague hope that people will ‘do the right thing’ is very much one for the birds.  Dissembling optimism from someone who’s never been short of anything in his life, coupled with government inaction – or, at best, ineffective action – which ignores the ground truth of empty shelves is only going to push more people into the ‘get as much as we can when it’s available’ way of thinking.  And, much as I’d like to, I can’t really argue that that is an irrational reaction – forcing the whole population to play prisoner’s dilemma won’t end well.

1 comment:

dafis said...

"irrational" has become the new "rational" which is why Tories are now mobilising superficially socialist ideas. However it is merely a convenient adoption of a stance to get through or around an obstacle. Sincerity is at a premium. For much of the population it is also a time of insincerity and opportunism.

Witness the shits who will be self isolating as it gives them a chance to duck work and still draw a decent %age of earnings. Kids off school ? let's nip down the park ( the national or coastal park). Trouble was they all did it on the same day which blew the big whistle and buggered things up a bit. But these wide boys will be quick to readjust and find something else to do which will definitely not be in keeping with the wider mission of arresting + mitigating Covid 19.