This column will change your life: Mediocrity sucks, but who cares?
Others being lazy and selfish merely gives us a good excuse to behave likewise.
Academic philosophers are often legitimately accused of ignoring the questions that matter in the real world, so I was pleased to see how Gloria Origgi, a specialist in the philosophy of mind, phrases the question that motivates her research: "Why does life suck so much?" Her answer, regrettably, goes by the awkward label "kakonomics", from the Greek "kako-", meaning harsh or incorrect (sucky, basically), and the suffix "-nomics", meaning "give me a lucrative book deal". But whatever you call it, it's an illuminating way to reconsider human behaviour, as it suggests – against conventional wisdom – that we often tacitly want the organisations we work for, along with our friends and even partners, to be mediocre and not deliver what they promise.
Few of us, whether cynics or optimists, think of human nature this way. According to game theory, the economic approach Origgi is adapting, people are out for themselves: they'll do whatever they can to maximise personal gain while seizing every opportunity to slack off at others' expense. Critics object that we're not so nasty: in experiments, people stubbornly refuse to act as selfishly as game theory predicts. But both sides agree we want other people to give their best. Suppose you're a manager: whether or not you'd rather be selfishly lazy, you'd surely want your underlings to do a stellar job of briefing you for the big meeting or fetching coffee. Likewise, you'd prefer it if friends or lovers brought their best to your relationship. Wouldn't you?
Kakonomics replies: maybe not.
The reason is guilt: other people not delivering what they'd promised frees us from having to deliver what we'd promised. Mediocre colleagues facilitate our own mediocrity; a friend or partner's half-arsedness towards us makes us feel better about ours. We learn to trust each other's untrustworthiness – to feel confident that promises, whether to strain every sinew for the company or always be there for a friend, won't be insisted upon. Thus emerges a web of silent agreements to do a poor job. Origgi, in a paper co-authored with Diego Gambetta, argues that in Italy the situation has reached an extreme – a "cocktail of confusion, sloppiness and broken promises". (She quotes an American friend renovating a house there: "Italian builders never deliver when they promise, but the good thing is they do not expect you to pay them when you promise, either.") The result is comfortable for both parties, in the short term. But over the long term, and on a macro-level, it causes organisations to sink into underachievement, for friendships and romances to wither and die.
This won't seem revolutionary to therapists, who know that almost every behaviour carries a psychological payoff, even if we're desperate to eradicate it. We break diets, or procrastinate, partly for the feeling of autonomy we derive from resisting rules, even if we wrote the rules ourselves. The feeling of guiltless laziness when we kakonomically agree to underperform is similar. Giving your all, whether to a friendship or work project, carries the risk of unpleasant emotions: no wonder it's tempting to avoid that. Seeing life through the lens of such payoffs clarifies much: seemingly irrational behaviour reveals itself as rational, even if ultimately self-defeating – and so instead of pointlessly demanding that it stop, we can devise ways to address it. I mean, if we can be bothered. Shall we all just agree to head down the pub instead?
Do you see yourself being described?