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When enough is enough

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 30 October 2019

During British rule of colonial India, venomous cobras around Delhi became a problem – there were too many. Attempting to decrease numbers, local authorities began paying a bounty for dead cobras.

However, the bounty backfired when locals began breeding cobras for profit. Officials then cancelled the bounty, and the breeders set the cobras free, further compounding the problem.

The phenomenon of unintended consequences sometimes causing more harm than benefits became known as the “cobra effect.” In this case, a worthy effort intended for public benefit was twisted to satisfy the expediency of a few, whereby gain (bounty dollars) came at the welfare of others. It’s the very definition of greed. And in the case of cobra breeders, it looks really easy to identify. It’s abhorrent and disgusting. It offends us.

But greed isn’t always identified as repulsive. It sneaks up on us under the guise of competition. And it starts creeping in when we’re young – young enough to play the board game Monopoly. You remember how that went: More money meant more power. And if you didn’t get more money, you were eventually forced out by someone who had more.

Social psychologist Paul K. Piff talks about the science of greed, and one of his experiments involved Monopoly. By the flip of a coin, one player was “poor” (less starting cash and only one die to roll) and the other player was “rich” (more cash and two dice to roll to move around the board). As the game progressed, rich players were observed eating more complimentary pretzels (bolder action), being more physically demonstrative (pumping fists or slapping the table), talking more about the money they had and becoming more rude and impatient with the poor player.

When rich players were asked to talk about why they won, they talked about what they had done to strategically buy different properties and earn their success. They totally ignored the flip of the coin that had randomly chosen them for their privileged start.

To test his theories further, Piff’s team studied the price of cars as it related to driver behavior. In the state where this was tested, it is a law that when a person is standing on a curb waiting to cross at a designated crosswalk, the car is required to stop and allow them to cross. You’ve probably already predicted how BMW drivers (and other expensive car drivers) fared. They didn’t stop. Those driving inexpensive cars, however, stopped for the pedestrian. In Piff’s study, none of the inexpensive cars broke the law, but 50% of the most expensive cars broke the law.

This is fun, isn’t it? I’m feeling a little self-righteous over here … after all, I don’t drive a BMW. I seldom win at Monopoly. They’re the bad guys, not me. But we all know you don’t have to make millions to struggle with entitlement and greed (by definition, when or if we put our own interests above others’ interests). Whether we trade stocks or flip burgers, we live every day with competition – in markets, in careers, in our improvement tracks. And competition can, if we’re not careful, put us on that track of getting just for getting’s sake. None of us is immune to a little greed, a little entitlement.

But here’s the best (and most hopeful) part of the study: Piff also found that “small nudges” of compassion create change. Sometimes we just need reminding that there are benefits to cooperation and advantages to community. When people were reminded of our common humanity, then empathy, giving and compassion increased. Piff says we just need reminding sometimes to switch from the “madness of more to the economics of enough.”

This Thanksgiving season, remember the cobra effect – the drive to gain and improve, while not intrinsically bad, can turn deadly to the soul when our own interests are put on a higher plane than the interests of others. And sometimes we don’t need “more” ... enough is just enough.  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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