Who plays nice? Who plays rough?

I have a confession to make. I am one of these people who can’t watch a TV show like Game of thrones because there is too much evil. In fact, I generally cringe when reading novels or watching movies where there is too much lying or backstabbing. I simply cannot stand it.

In academia, there are versions of Game of thrones unfolding at times. I similarly despise them.

I would have been very unhappy as an employee of the NSA.

I don’t know how common this is… but I have hard time watching a movie like Harry Potter. It doesn’t mean that I am all soft and cuddly. In fact, maybe the opposite is true: I have very little tolerance for people who backstab or denigrate others. I will go out of my way to avoid them.

So how would I fare in a “ruthless business”?

Maybe better than I thought:

(…) we compare students with two adult populations deliberately selected from two cutthroat internet industries — domain trading and adult entertainment (pornography). Across a range of indicators, business people in these industries are more pro-social than students: they are more altruistic, trusting, trustworthy, and lying averse. (Hoffman and Morgan, 2013)

It is easy to assume that “nice folks” will thrive in a highly regulated setting (e.g., in a government job, in academia) whereas “ruthless folks” will do better in a cutthroat industry. But the reverse might be true.

In a less regulated setting, your career depends on the collaboration of strangers. If you have a high tolerance for cheating and lying, your reputation might suffer, or you might not be so easily turned off by other cheaters. Both of these effects will harm you.

In a more formal social setting, ruthless individuals may fare better: being “morally flexible” is more likely to get you ahead.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Who plays nice? Who plays rough?”

  1. In a highly regulated environment, people may assume that the rules are being moral for them. There are so many rules, that anything that is within the rules must be OK.

    Or maybe a highly regulated environment cultivates a disrespect for rules. If you have to break rules routinely to get your job done, you may not follow the few rules that matter.

    There’s a section in Antifragile where Nassim Taleb talks about how viscous and petty academic competition is compared to business competition, and that matches my experience.

  2. @John

    Many organizations are designed to work even when people cannot be trusted.

    In contrast, my relationship with the local convenience store is based on trust. If he cheats me, of if I try to steal from him, we are not going to get along.

  3. “If you ever have to choose between a mobster’s promise and a civil servant’s, go with the mobster. Any time. Institutions do not have a sense of honor, individuals do.” — Nassim Taleb

    Civil servants, or employees of big corporations, may not lack honor so much as power or knowledge. They may sincerely promise you something, but be impotent to carry it out. Or they may be ignorant. They tell you something that they believe that just isn’t true.

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