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Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Few books have ever struck us as much as Will Durant's 100-page masterpiece The Lessons of History, a collection of essays which sum up the lifelong thoughts of a brilliant historian.
We recently dug up an interview with Durant and his wife Ariel — co-authors of the 11-volume masterpiece The Story of Civilization — and sent it to the members of the Farnam Street Learning Community. While the interview is full of wisdom in its entirety, we picked one interesting excerpt to share with you: Durant's thoughts on the “Great Man” (and certainly, Great Woman) theory of history.
Has history been Theirs to dictate? Durant has a very interesting answer, one that's hard to ignore once you think about it:
Interviewer: Haven’t certain individuals, the genius, great man, or hero, as Carlisle believed, been the prime determinants of human history?
Will Durant: There are many cases, I think, in which individual characters have had very significant results upon history. But basically, I think Carlisle was wrong. That the hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man. What would Lenin have been if he had remained in, what was it, Geneva? He would have a little…. But he faced tremendous demands upon him, and something in him responded. I think those given us would have brought out capacity in many different types of people. They wouldn’t have to be geniuses to begin with.
Interviewer: Then what is the function or role of heroes?
Will Durant: They form the function of meeting a situation whose demands are always all his potential abilities.
Interviewer: What do you think is the important thing for us, in studying the course of history, to know about character? What is the role of character in history?
Will Durant: I suppose the role of character is for the individual to rise to a situation. If it were not for the situation, we would never have heard of him. So that you might say that character is the product of an exceptional demand by the situation upon human ability. I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded. So, I think Lenin was made by the situation. Of course he brought ideas, and he had to abandon almost all those ideas. For example, he went back to private enterprise for a while.
One way we might corroborate Durant's thoughts on Lenin is to ask another simple question: Which U.S. Presidents are considered the most admired?
Students of history have three easy answers pop in (and polls corroborate): George Washington – the first U.S. President and a Founding Father; Abraham Lincoln – the man who held the Union together; and finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt – unless the U.S. amends its Constitution, the longest serving U.S. President now and forever.
All great men, certainly. All three of which rose to the occasion. But what do they share?
They were the ones holding office at the time of (or in the case of Washington, immediately upon winning) the three major wars impacting American history: The American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II.
It raises an interesting question: Would these men be remembered and held in the same esteem if they hadn't been handed such situations? The answer pops in pretty quickly: Probably not. Their heroism was partly a product of their character and partly a product of their situation.
And thus Durant gives us a very interesting model to bring to reality: Greatness is in many of us, but only if we rise, with practical expediency, to the demands of life. Greatness arises only when tested.
For the rest of Durant's interview, and a lot of other cool stuff, check out the Learning Community.
“Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long
sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently.”
— Murray Gell-Mann
What parts of reality are the product of an accident? The physicist Murray Gell-Mann thought the answer was “just about everything.” And to Gell-Mann, understanding this idea was the the key to understanding how complex systems work.
Gell-Mann believed two things caused what we see in the world:
Gell-Mann pulled the second part from Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the human genetic code, who argued that the code itself may well have been an “accident” of physical history rather than a uniquely necessary arrangement.
These accidents become “frozen” in time, and have a great effect on all subsequent developments; complex life itself is an example of something that did happen a certain way but probably could have happened other ways — we know this from looking at the physics.
This idea of fundamental laws plus accidents, and the non-linear second order effects they produce, became the science of complexity and chaos theory. Gell-Mann discussed the fascinating idea further in a 1996 essay on Edge:
Each of us human beings, for example, is the product of an enormously long sequence of accidents, any of which could have turned out differently. Think of the fluctuations that produced our galaxy, the accidents that led to the formation of the solar system, including the condensation of dust and gas that produced Earth, the accidents that helped to determine the particular way that life began to evolve on Earth, and the accidents that contributed to the evolution of particular species with particular characteristics, including the special features of the human species. Each of us individuals has genes that result from a long sequence of accidental mutations and chance matings, as well as natural selection.
Now, most single accidents make very little difference to the future, but others may have widespread ramifications, many diverse consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. Those we call frozen accidents.
These “frozen accidents” occur at every nested level of the world: As Gell-Mann points out, they are an outcome in physics (the physical laws we observe may be accidents of history); in biology (our genetic code is largely a byproduct of “advantageous accidents” as discussed by Crick); and in human history, as we'll discuss. In other words, the phenomenon hits all three buckets of knowledge.
Gell-Mann gives a great example of how this plays out on the human scale:
For instance, Henry VIII became king of England because his older brother Arthur died. From the accident of that death flowed all the coins, all the charters, all the other records, all the history books mentioning Henry VIII; all the different events of his reign, including the manner of separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church; and of course the whole succession of subsequent monarchs of England and of Great Britain, to say nothing of the antics of Charles and Diana. The accumulation of frozen accidents is what gives the world its effective complexity.
The most important idea here is that the frozen accidents of history have a nonlinear effect on everything that comes after. The complexity we see comes from simple rules and many, many “bounces” that could have gone in any direction. Once they go a certain way, there is no return.
This principle is illustrated wonderfully in the book The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. The first example comes from 19th century history:
In the late 1800s, “Buffalo Bill” Cody created a show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which toured the United States, putting on exhibitions of gun fighting, horsemanship, and other cowboy skills. One of the show's most popular acts was a woman named Phoebe Moses, nicknamed Annie Oakley. Annie was reputed to have been able to shoot the head off of a running quail by age twelve, and in Buffalo Bill's show, she put on a demonstration of marksmanship that included shooting flames off candles, and corks out of bottles. For her grand finale, Annie would announce that she would shoot the end off a lit cigarette held in a man's mouth, and ask for a brave volunteer from the audience. Since no one was ever courageous enough to come forward, Annie hid her husband, Frank, in the audience. He would “volunteer,” and they would complete the trick together. In 1880, when the Wild West Show was touring Europe, a young crown prince (and later, kaiser), Wilhelm, was in the audience. When the grand finale came, much to Annie's surprise, the macho crown prince stood up and volunteered. The future German kaiser strode into the ring, placed the cigarette in his mouth, and stood ready. Annie, who had been up late the night before in the local beer garden, was unnerved by this unexpected development. She lined the cigarette up in her sights, squeezed…and hit it right on the target.
Many people have speculated that if at that moment, there had been a slight tremor in Annie's hand, then World War I might never have happened. If World War I had not happened, 8.5 million soldiers and 13 million civilian lives would have been saved. Furthermore, if Annie's hand had trembled and World War I had not happened, Hitler would not have risen from the ashes of a defeated Germany, and Lenin would not have overthrown a demoralized Russian government. The entire course of twentieth-century history might have been changed by the merest quiver of a hand at a critical moment. Yet, at the time, there was no way anyone could have known the momentous nature of the event.
This isn't to say that other big events, many bad, would not have precipitated in the 20th century. Almost certainly there would have been wars and upheavals.
But the actual course of history was in some part determined by small chance event which had no seeming importance when it happened. The impact of Wilhelm being alive rather than dead was totally non-linear. (A small non-event had a massively disproportionate effect on what happened later.)
This is why predicting the future, even with immense computing power, is an impossible task. The chaotic effects of randomness, with small inputs having disproportionate and massive effects, makes prediction a very difficult task. That's why we must appreciate the role of randomness in the world and seek to protect against it.
Another great illustration from The Origin of Wealth is a famous story in the world of technology:
[In 1980] IBM approached a small company with forty employees in Bellevue, Washington. The company, called Microsoft, was run by a Harvard dropout named bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen. IBM wanted to talk to the small company about creating a version of the programming language BASIC for the new PC. At their meeting, IBM asked Gates for his advice on what operating systems (OS) the new machine should run. Gates suggested that IBM talk to Gary Kildall of Digital Research, whose CP/M operating system had become the standard in the hobbyist world of microcomputers. But Kildall was suspicious of the blue suits from IBM and when IBM tried to meet him, he went hot-air ballooning, leaving his wife and lawyer to talk to the bewildered executives, along with instructions not to sign even a confidentiality agreement. The frustrated IBM executives returned to Gates and asked if he would be interested in the OS project. Despite never having written an OS, Gates said yes. He then turned around and license a product appropriately named Quick and Dirty Operating System, or Q-DOS, from a small company called Seattle Computer Products for $50,000, modified it, and then relicensed it to IBM as PC-DOS. As IBM and Microsoft were going through the final language for the agreement, Gates asked for a small change. He wanted to retain the rights to sell his DOS on non-IBM machines in a version called MS-DOS. Gates was giving the company a good price, and IBM was more interested in PC hardware than software sales, so it agreed. The contract was signed on August 12, 1981. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Microsoft is a company worth $270 billion while IBM is worth $140 billion.
At any point in that story, business history could have gone a much different way: Kildall could have avoided hot-air ballooning, IBM could have refused Gates' offer, Microsoft could have not gotten the license for QDOS. Yet this little episode resulted in massive wealth for Gates and a long period of trouble for IBM.
Predicting the outcomes of a complex system must clear a pretty major hurdle: The prediction must be robust to non-linear “accidents” with a chain of unforeseen causation. In some situations this is doable: We can confidently rule out that Microsoft will not go broke in the next 12 months; the chain of events needed to take it under quickly is so low as to be negligible, no matter how you compute it. (Even IBM made it through the above scenario, although not unscathed.)
But as history rolls on and more “accidents” accumulate year by year, a “Fog of the Future” rolls in to obscure our view. In order to operate in such a world, we must learn that predicting is inferior to building systems that don't require prediction, as Mother Nature does. And if we must predict, must confine our predictions to areas with few variables that lie in our circle of competence, and understand the consequences if we're wrong.
If this topic is interesting to you, try exploring the rest of the Origin of Wealth, which discusses complexity in the economic realm in great (but readable) detail; also check out the rest of Murray Gell-Mann's essay on Edge. Gell-Mann also wrote a book on the topic called The Quark and the Jaguar which is worth checking out. The best writer on randomness and robustness in the face of an uncertain future, is of course Nassim Taleb, whom we have written about many times.
Complex outcomes in human systems are a tough nut to crack when it comes to deciding what's really true. Any phenomena we might try to explain will have a host of competing theories, many of them seemingly plausible.
So how do we know what to go with?
One idea is to take a nod from the best. One of the most successful “explainers” of human behavior has been the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. His books have been massively influential, in part because they combine scientific rigor, explanatory power, and plainly excellent writing.
What's unique about Pinker is the range of sources he draws on. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a cogitation on the decline in relative violence in recent human history, draws on ideas from evolutionary psychology, forensic anthropology, statistics, social history, criminology, and a host of other fields. Pinker, like Vaclav Smil and Jared Diamond, is the opposite of the man with a hammer, ranging over much material to come to his conclusions.
In fact, when asked about the progress of social science as an explanatory arena over time, Pinker credited this cross-disciplinary focus:
Because of the unification with the sciences, there are more genuinely explanatory theories, and there’s a sense of progress, with more non-obvious things being discovered that have profound implications.
But, even better, Pinker gives out an outline for how a multidisciplinary thinker should approach problems in a complex world.
Here's the issue at stake: When we're viewing a complex phenomena—say, the decline in certain forms of violence in human history—it can be hard to come with up a rigorous explanation. We can't just set up repeated lab experiments and vary the conditions of human history to see what pops out, as with physics or chemistry.
So out of necessity, we must approach the problem in a different way.
In the above referenced interview, Pinker gives a wonderful example how to do it: Note how he carefully “cross-checks” from a variety of sources of data, developing a 3D view of the landscape he's trying to assess:
Pinker: Absolutely, I think most philosophers of science would say that all scientific generalizations are probabilistic rather than logically certain, more so for the social sciences because the systems you are studying are more complex than, say, molecules, and because there are fewer opportunities to intervene experimentally and to control every variable. But the existence of the social sciences, including psychology, to the extent that they have discovered anything, shows that, despite the uncontrollability of human behavior, you can make some progress: you can do your best to control the nuisance variables that are not literally in your control; you can have analogues in a laboratory that simulate what you’re interested in and impose an experimental manipulation.
You can be clever about squeezing the last drop of causal information out of a correlational data set, and you can use converging evidence, the qualitative narratives of traditional history in combination with quantitative data sets and regression analyses that try to find patterns in them. But I also go to traditional historical narratives, partly as a sanity check. If you’re just manipulating numbers, you never know whether you’ve wandered into some preposterous conclusion by taking numbers too seriously that couldn’t possibly reflect reality. Also, it’s the narrative history that provides hypotheses that can then be tested. Very often a historian comes up with some plausible causal story, and that gives the social scientists something to do in squeezing a story out of the numbers.
Warburton: I wonder if you’ve got an example of just that, where you’ve combined the history and the social science?
Pinker: One example is the hypothesis that the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment, that is, the abolition of slavery, torture, cruel punishments, religious persecution, and so on, was a product of an expansion of empathy, which in turn was fueled by literacy and the consumption of novels and journalistic accounts. People read what life was like in other times and places, and then applied their sense of empathy more broadly, which gave them second thoughts about whether it’s a good idea to disembowel someone as a form of criminal punishment. So that’s a historical hypothesis. Lynn Hunt, a historian at the University of California–Berkeley, proposed it, and there are some psychological studies that show that, indeed, if people read a first-person account by someone unlike them, they will become more sympathetic to that individual, and also to the category of people that that individual represents.
So now we have a bit of experimental psychology supporting the historical qualitative narrative. And, in addition, one can go to economic historians and see that, indeed, there was first a massive increase in the economic efficiency of manufacturing a book, then there was a massive increase in the number of books published, and finally there was a massive increase in the rate of literacy. So you’ve got a story that has at least three vertices: the historian’s hypothesis; the economic historians identifying exogenous variables that changed prior to the phenomenon we’re trying to explain, so the putative cause occurs before the putative effect; and then you have the experimental manipulation in a laboratory, showing that the intervening link is indeed plausible.
Pinker is saying, Look we can't just rely on “plausible narratives” generated by folks like the historians. There are too many possibilities that could be correct.
Nor can we rely purely on correlations (i.e., the rise in literacy statistically tracking the decline in violence) — they don't necessarily offer us a causative explanation. (Does the rise in literacy cause less violence, or is it vice versa? Or, does a third factor cause both?)
However, if we layer in some other known facts from areas we can experiment on — say, psychology or cognitive neuroscience — we can sometimes establish the causal link we need or, at worst, a better hypothesis of reality.
In this case, it would be the finding from psychology that certain forms of literacy do indeed increase empathy (for logical reasons).
Does this method give us absolute proof? No. However, it does allow us to propose and then test, re-test, alter, and strengthen or ultimately reject a hypothesis. (In other words, rigorous thinking.)
We can't stop here though. We have to take time to examine competing hypotheses — there may be a better fit. The interviewer continues on asking Pinker about this methodology:
Warburton: And so you conclude that the de-centering that occurs through novel-reading and first-person accounts probably did have a causal impact on the willingness of people to be violent to their peers?
Pinker: That’s right. And, of course, one has to rule out alternative hypotheses. One of them could be the growth of affluence: perhaps it’s simply a question of how pleasant your life is. If you live a longer and healthier and more enjoyable life, maybe you place a higher value on life in general, and, by extension, the lives of others. That would be an alternative hypothesis to the idea that there was an expansion of empathy fueled by greater literacy. But that can be ruled out by data from economic historians that show there was little increase in affluence during the time of the Humanitarian Revolution. The increase in affluence really came later, in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
Let's review the process that Pinker has laid out, one that we might think about emulating as we examine the causes of complex phenomena in human systems:
What we end up with is not necessarily a bulletproof explanation, but probably the best we can do if we think carefully. A good cross-disciplinary examination with quantitative and qualitative sources coming into equal play, and a good dose of judgment, can be far more rigorous than the gut instinct or plausible nonsense type stories that many of us lazily spout.
Although Pinker's “multiple vertices” approach to problem solving in complex domains can be powerful, we always have to be on guard for phenomena that we simply cannot explain at our current level of competence: We must have a “too hard” pile when competing explanations come out “too close to call” or we otherwise feel we're outside of our circle of competence. Always tread carefully and be sure to follow Darwin's Golden Rule: Contrary facts are more important than confirming ones. Be ready to change your mind, like Darwin, when the facts don't go your way.
Still Interested? For some more Pinker goodness check out our prior posts on his work, or check out a few of his books like How the Mind Works or The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
“It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in one enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.”
— Charlie Munger
Singapore seemed destined for failure or subservience to a more powerful neighbor. The country is by far the smallest in Southeast Asia and was not gifted with many natural resources. Lee Kuan Yew thought otherwise. “His vision,” wrote Henry Kissinger, “was of a state that would not simply survive, but prevail by excelling. Superior intelligence, discipline, and ingenuity would substitute for resources.”
To give you an idea of the magnitude of success that Lee Kuan Yew achieved, when he took over, per capita income was about $400 and now, in only about two generations, it exceeds $50,000.
Here are 12 things I learned from Lee Kuan Yew about the world and the source of many of our present ills reading Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World
Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World offers Yew's timeless wisdom.
“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman
In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)
Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.
Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.
On Moral Fervor:
A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.
Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.
If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.
At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.
In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they're capable of.
Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.
But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.
Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.
The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.
We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:
In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.
It's even true with the passion for knowledge — something we'd all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It's given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.
The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.
Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don't exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.
In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.
Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.
Still Interested? Check out Tussman's brilliant quote on understanding the world.
“You must have the confidence to override people with more credentials than you whose cognition is impaired by incentive-caused bias or some similar psychological force that is obviously present. But there are also cases where you have to recognize that you have no wisdom to add— and that your best course is to trust some expert.”
— Charlie Munger
There's a great little story on incentives which some of you may already know. The tale may be apocryphal, but it instructs so wonderfully that it's worth a repeat.
During British colonial rule of India, the government began to worry about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi, and so instituted a reward for every dead snake brought to officials. In a wonderful demonstration of the importance of second-order thinking, Indian citizens dutifully complied and began breeding venomous snakes to kill and bring to the British. By the time the experiment was over, the snake problem was worse than when it began. The Raj government had gotten exactly what it asked for.
There's another story, much more perverse, from the Congolese massacre in the late 19th and early 20th century under Belgian rule — the period Joseph Conrad wrote about in Heart of Darkness. (Some of you might know the tale better as Apocalypse Now, which was a Vietnam retelling of Heart of Darkness.)
As the wickedly evil King Leopold II of Belgium forced the Congolese to produce rubber, he sent in his Force Publique to whip the natives into shape through genocidal murder. (Think of them as a Belgian Congo version of the Nazi's SS.) Fearful that his soldiers would waste bullets hunting animals, Leopold ordered that the soldiers bring back the severed hands of dead Congolese as proof that they were enforcing the rubber decree. (Leopold himself never even visited his colony, although he did cause at least 10 million deaths.)
Given that Leopold's quotas were impossible to meet, shortfalls were common. And with the incentives placed on Belgian soldiers, many decided they could get human hands more easily than meeting rubber quotas, while still conserving their ammo for hunting. An interesting result ensued, as described by Bertrand Russell in his book Freedom and Organisation, 1814-1914.
Each village was ordered by the authorities to collect and bring in a certain amount of rubber – as much as the men could collect and bring in by neglecting all work for their own maintenance. If they failed to bring the required amount, their women were taken away and kept as hostages in compounds or in the harems of government employees. If this method failed, native troops, many of them cannibals, were sent into the village to spread terror, if necessary by killing some of the men; but in order to prevent a waste of cartridges, they were ordered to bring one right hand for every cartridge used. If they missed, or used cartridges on big game, they cut off the hands of living people to make up the necessary number.
In fact, as Peter Forbath describes in his book The River Congo, the soldiers were paid explicitly on the number of hands they collected. So hands gained in demand.
The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace… the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.
Looking to bolster an economy of rubber, Leopold II got an economy of severed hands. Like the British Raj, he got exactly what he asked for.
Joseph Heath describes another case of incentives gone wrong in his book Economics Without Illusions, citing the book Out of Poverty: And Into Something More Comfortable by John Stackhouse.
Stackhouse spent time in Ghana in the 1990s, and noticed that the “socially conscious” retailer The Body Shop was an enormous purchaser of shea nuts, which were produced in great quantities by Ghanians. The Body Shop used shea butter, produced from the nuts, to produce a variety of skin products, and as a part of its socially conscious mission, and its role in the Trade, Not Aid campaign, decided they were willing to pay above-market prices to Ghanian farmers, to the tune of an extra 50% on top of the going rate. And on top of that premium price, The Body Shop also decided to throw in a bonus payment for every kilogram of shea butter purchased, to be used for local development projects at the farmers' discretion.
Thinking that the Body Shop's early shea nut orders were a harbinger of a profitable boom, farmers began to rapidly up their production of shea butter. Stackhouse describes the result in his book:
A shea-nut rush was on, and neither the British chain nor the aid agencies were in a position to absorb the glut. In the first season, the northern villages, which normally produced two tonnes of shea butter a year, churned out twenty tonnes, nearly four times what the Body Shop wanted….Making matters worse, the Body Shop, after discovering it had overestimated the international market for shea products, quickly scaled back its orders for the next season. In Northern Ghana, it wasn't long before shea butter prices plunged.
Unfortunately, in its desire to do good in a poor part of the world, the Body Shop created a situation which was worse than when they began: Massive resources went into shea butter production only to find that it was not needed, and the overproduction of nuts ended up being mostly worthless.
These three cases above, and many more, lead us to the conclusion that people follow incentives the way ants follow sugar. It's imperative that we think very literally about the incentive systems we create. Remember that incentives are not only financial. Frequently it's something else: prestige, freedom, time, titles, sex, power, admiration…all of these and many other things are powerful incentives. But if we're not careful, we do the equivalent of creating an economy for severed hands.
Still Interested? Learn about one company that understood and harnessed incentives correctly, or re-read Munger's discussion on incentive-caused bias in his famous speech on human psychology. Also, check out the Distorting Power of Incentives.