Bank like there’s no one watching

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals Column.

As Barclays prepares for an inquiry into its practices, 15 banks lined up behind it, Bob Diamond must be haunted by what he said at last year’s BBC Today business lecture: “Culture is difficult to define, I think it’s even more difficult to mandate – but for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.”

Well, we’re all watching now. Most of us are viewing with cynicism - with thoughts that sharp practice is fairly inevitable and that we’ll probably find more as the investigation unfolds. But perhaps we should all be more shocked. After all, we naturally treat others surprisingly fairly, even when given the power not to. What went so wrong here?
 
Here's a classic experiment that might help - it's known as the ultimatum game. In this game, you are given some money and one condition: you must share the money with another. If the other turns the money down, though, both of you lose it.
 
Now, the logical response to the condition is to offer your partner the smallest amount possible. They might be slightly annoyed, but at least they got something out of it. To the surprise of the economists who thought up the test, though, this is not what happened. Instead, subjects gave out far more money than they needed to.
 
What made them so generous? The researchers speculated that it was fear of rejection: they didn't want to make the other person angry enough to walk away from the deal. 
 
But what happens when the respondent’s power of rejection is taken away? A slight change to the ultimatum game turns it into the dictator game. In this version partner can simply dictate how much the other receives. No fear of rejection here - the second partner must just take what they are offered. But here again, the experimenters were surprised - dictators turned out to be unnecessarily generous. 
 
What's going on? It can't just be the fear of being turned down. One explanation that fits is that people have a sense of fairness. We simply don't want to act too selfishly. 
 

See no evil

 

But there was a way to change players’ commitment to fairness: isolation. When put in a separate room from their partners, with no access to their reaction, the dictators started handing out tiny amounts – the smallest they could get away with. The lethal combination of power and isolation seemed finally to put paid to their empathetic instincts. When no one was watching, they just didn’t care. 

Back to the bankers, then: we can’t expect people to act fairly or even legally if they are given a large amount of power in isolation from those affected by their decisions. We like to seem fair, but this only works with an audience. A culture where no one is watching is a culture doomed to corruption.
Shadowy figures. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile