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Senin, 09 Maret 2009

A Joke about Our Culture

Inspired by Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational
Chapter 12: The Context of Our Character, Part II: Why Dealing with Cash Makes Us More Honest

Have you ever heard this joke? In MIT dormitory, somebody accidentally leaves $5 in a public refrigerator. After three days, the $5 bill is still there. In another case, somebody leaves six cans of cokes. After three days, they disappear. In Makkah, the same two cases end up with both cash and cokes untouched at all. It is haram to take things not belonging to you. In an Indonesia university dormitory, however, both cash and cokes disappear after three days. Furthermore, the fridge disappears after five days. OK, please don ‘t feel offended. It ‘s only a joke.

I didn't create the joke for sure. Although there is an analogy to this joke, the joke itself was originally created by Pak Bahari, my colleague in office. One day, I told him a research conducted by Dan Ariely in MIT dormitory regarding cash and cokes. In the experiment, Dan left cans of cokes in public refrigerators and found that all of them disappeared in three days. When he left dollar bills in the fridges, however, nobody took them in three days until he himself took them. The conclusion? People are more inclined to cheat when they commit to non-cash transactions. The farther we are from cash transactions, the more chance we cheat. Sounds weird?

Well, probably because of the weirdness of the conclusion, Pak Bahari instantly created the joke despite that I told him not to try it here. Anyway, the conclusion from Dan ‘s experiment can be used to explain why on the one hand good professionals, good CEO ‘s, good executives, good employees, good men, good women never try to steal money directly, whether from old ladies in the street or from banks across the street, while on the other hand cannot give up the temptations to increase their own perks in the expense of the stockholders. Stealing money or cash is clearly a bad thing to do, but manipulating stock options is more acceptable.

Now, consider this example. In your office, you have a petty cash box. It is always locked, but you are pretty sure that breaking it is not difficult. Do you have the intention to break it? No! In the same office, you are supplied with stationeries. Your already think it’s part of the facility given in order for you to do your job. Right? But one day, your daughter calls from home and asks you to buy a couple of pencils. Since you are very busy, you think it is more practical to bring your office’s pencils home. More acceptable to cheat like this, isn’t it? You even never perceive it as cheating.

Another example would perhaps make you buy Dan’s conclusion in. Suppose you are a government official responsible for managing projects. Let’s say infrastructure projects (o please anybody, do not feel offended by this only joke – Y Pan). You have your budget approved. Do you have the intention to leak the budget for yourself? Nope, I don’t think so, because you are a good person. I know it. But suppose you can slightly mark your projects’ values up. The reason is a just-in-case. Then your contractors treat you luxurious dinners. They also invite you to their headquarters, overseas. Can you resist? Nope, because you think you don’t steal anything from anybody.

A great teacher once said that it is not really difficult preventing oneself from illegal things, but it is hard dealing with subtle things, between legal and illegal. Grey area! In this area, we can manipulate things with no ill feeling. We can rationalize our irrationality. Once we feel that we judge rationally, there is no reason at all to resist seizing opportunities. We think that we already create value and consequently we deserve to take our part.

In our global financial system, the same phenomena have occurred for decades, or probably for centuries. A bank had underlying transactions, which were closest to the cash. The bank then created innovative mechanisms to sell more and even take more profit. Interest was introduced. Then derivatives were created and used, meaning that the bank created more transactions remote from the underlying transactions, remote from cash. The result? Bubbles! White collar crimes! Maddoff is only an example. Global crisis!

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