Lambert pointed to a recent Harvard Business Review blog post that posited the question of whether it would be possible to engineer a mirror image of the Stanford Prison experiment, in which subjects were put in a mock prison setting, cast either as guards or inmates. The experiment had to be aborted within days as the guards quickly became sadistic. But could a setting be created in which good behavior would be fostered? The pitch from the post:
For years, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachment in Richmond, Canada ran like any other law enforcement bureaucracy and experienced similar results: recidivism or reoffending rates ran at around 60%, and they were experiencing spiraling rates of youth crime. This forward-thinking Canadian detachment, led by a young, new superintendent, Ward Clapham, challenged the core assumptions of the policing system itself. He noticed that the vast majority of police work was reactive. He asked: “Could we design a system that encouraged people to not commit crime in the first place?” Indeed, their strategic intent was a clever play on words: “Take No Prisoners.”
Their approach was to try to catch youth doing the right things and give them a Positive Ticket. The ticket granted the recipient free entry to the movies or to a local youth center. They gave out an average of 40,000 tickets per year. That is three times the number of negative tickets over the same period. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to Clapham, that ratio (2.9 positive affects to 1 negative affect, to be precise) is called the Losada Line. It is the minimum ratio of positive to negatives that has to exist for a team to flourish. On higher-performing teams (and marriages for that matter) the ratio jumps to 5:1. But does it hold true in policing?
According to Clapham, youth recidivism was reduced from 60% to 8%. Overall crime was reduced by 40%. Youth crime was cut in half. And it cost one-tenth of the traditional judicial system.
There is power in creating a positive cycle like Clapham did. Indeed, HBR’s The Power of Small Wins, recently explored how managers can tap into relatively minor victories to significantly increase the satisfaction and motivation of their employees. It is an observation that has been made as far back as the 1968 issue of HBR in an article by Frederick Herzberg titled, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” (PDF). That piece has been among the most popular articles at Harvard Business Review. His research showed that the two primary motivators for people were (1.) achievement and (2.) recognition for achievement.
OK, so what’s not to like about this? The problem is first, this touching story isn’t exactly convincing, and second, there is more to this sort of effort at workplace/social engineering than meets the eye.
Let’s start by noting this wasn’t a controlled experiment. We have a new boss who tries something new and wants to prove it worked. So the first question is: did the “Take No Prisoners” policy lead to data fudging, such as Clampham’s subordinates giving kids only warnings (hence no “crime”) for things that in the previous regime would have gotten them booked? Second, how much of the behavior change was due to the “reward” aspect, as opposed to giving kids something harmless to do with their free time? One of the drivers of teenage bad behavior is boredom. Put it another way: if the tickets had been distributed randomly, as opposed to for good acts, what would have been the change in crime level? That’s the baseline, and lacking that, we don’t know how much (if anything) to attribute to positive reinforcement.
In general, the reason I’m suspicious of this sort of thing is that the HR movement was created to suppress unions, and it has a long history of crappy to baldly misrepresented research. When unions were demanding not just higher wages, but more of a say in the way businesses were run, the human relations, and its successor, human resources, efforts were born to find ways to fight back. These movements took the view that workers were in essence rebellious children (so the focus on youth crime is almost a tell). They needed to be educated as to why what was good for their employer was also good for them (numerous brochures and films were produced for this purpose).
Another prong of this effort was to promote the idea that workers didn’t need more wages, what they needed was more recognition. The theory was that if management was paternalistic and encouraging, workers would be happier and more productive and would moderate their wage demands.
This may seem like an extreme reading, but Alex Carey, in his book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, provides compelling detail to support this thesis. For instance, the studies at the GE Hawthorne plant in the early 1930s, which formed the foundation of this line of thinking, are arguably the worst social science ever produced. Carey spent a full chapter demolishing the work; to call it intellectually dishonest is too kind. For instance: the study was done only with 5 workers, and no controls. The idea was to show that being nicer to workers would increase productivity. When productivity actually fell, they got rid of two workers, and brought two more compliant workers in. The management style also became directive and punitive. One of the new workers had become the sole income source for her family and was particularly eager to keep her job and earn premium pay, so she became the disciplinarian of the other four. Even with all those changes, the output figures (to the extent they were even kept) were repeatedly misrepresented in the report; indeed, the claims made for the most part contradicted the results. But even worse, an entire generation of supposed scientists parroted the study as gospel truth when even a casual reading would show it to be garbage.
Now in fact, there may still be some value in this idea, but I’m leery of the way organizational behavior specialists tout their theories. Japan has a low crime society with highly motivated and productive people, and they don’t go for strokes. My experience having worked with them is that they are are big on using criticism and shame to enforce social norms. In addition, societies with low income disparity generally have much less crime than those with high income disparity. But it’s much less threatening to the power structure to suggest cute ideas like “positive tickets” rather than more progressive taxation.