Behavioral Economics, Out of the Box and You the Reader
For the misguided readers who tell me that you actually read my columns, it’s probably occurred to you that I find behavioral economics fascinating. Had this discipline existed when I was an undergraduate, I conceivably could have gone in a different direction. (For those who read the Freakonomics Fellows or Malcolm Gladwell’s books, you understand.)
What I find fascinating about these writers is that they often blast through conventional wisdom, and their brainpower shines through their books. Now, this isn’t hero worship, because they COULD be wrong, but it's their approach, style and the logic they lay out that I find so compelling.
But there is a MORE fundamental reaction they evoke that is what makes their work so appealing.
They make me slightly uncomfortable and they challenge the living heck out of my own beliefs.
The Wall Street Journal (http://on.wsj.com/1Q72yTO) carried a story about whether paying for an elite or highly competitive college really makes a difference in salary after 10 years when compared with mid- to lower-tier schools. (There were 7,300 students in the study.) The report says it depends on the major. The conventional thinking? The more elite the school, the more money you’ll earn. The research says it depends on the major. Shockingly to me is, with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the reputation of the school didn’t matter. To repeat: It didn’t matter. But outside of STEM, the reputation matters greatly. I should point out that the researchers themselves found the conclusions “startling.”
A good friend of mine has a son who attends an Ivy League school along with two classmates from his high school graduating class. One switched from neuroscience to education. My initial comment to the boy’s father was that fellow classmate (a young woman) should have gone to Rutgers, a major research university in New Jersey, for almost free, I suspect, because of her grades, instead of taking out loans for an elite university. It just didn’t make sense. If the study is accurate (and questions of paycheck linked to schools' reputations are undergoing more and more research), it shows how wrong my reasoning was. In this instance, the education major DID the right thing because her Ivy League degree means more money while my friend’s son, a biology major, who had an almost free ride to Rutgers (which he turned down), should have opted out of the elite university.
All this got me thinking but this column isn’t about elite universities, majors or paychecks.
It’s about challenging conventions and our own way of thinking. Let’s be honest; most of us fall into comfortable patterns because, well, we feel comfortable with them, and whether you’re a manager or the president of a company, you get tired of making decisions all the time. Plus, patterns provide predictability and probably productivity. Yet you must troll through your personal beliefs at least occasionally and test yourself against the status quo.
If there’s one refrain that drives me nuts, it’s “think outside the box.” In all my years of working, whenever I suggested a real “think outside the box” idea, I found that an editor (or a client on the PR side) wasn’t so excited by it, and unless I had the final word, it usually went nowhere.
One last example. In the car and often at my desk, I listen to National Public Radio. OK, now you know I’m a liberal. Most mornings, I read the entire Wall Street Journal. OK, now you know I’m a conservative. Sometimes, NPR’s obvious liberal slant drives me nuts. Sometimes, the Wall Street Journal’s obvious editorial conservative tilt drives me nuts. I think you get the point. It’s my way of stretching myself to actually see, hear and read viewpoints that are different from mine.
No one can do this searching or stretching all the time. You would be mentally if not physically exhausted. But sometimes you need to disrupt the rhythms in your life to find out where you are.
This is where I want to mention Barry Schwartz and his book Why We Work. (See the story on p. 20.) Some elements of our interview and his book might make you just a little uncomfortable. After all, you might think for some employees that it’s “just warehouse work” or it’s “just counter work.” And yes, it is. And to construct a different culture might really mean thinking about it in a different way. That isn’t easy, and you have to spend time doing it, and it might be unsuccessful. The first time.
I’m seasoned enough to know that it’s impossible for me to give you specific suggestions for your operations. But some articles, like the one dealing with Why We Work, especially given this year’s focus on workforce issues, are a starting point. I want you to be a little uncomfortable. And, even more importantly, I’m hoping that in the future, you’ll have made yourself a bit more willing to challenge the status quo. You might discover a better working culture and, yes, possibly greater profit.
What does Tom Perić get out of all this? The satisfaction that I’ve earned my paycheck for this column AND that maybe a few people will implement my modest suggestions.