Our loss of wisdom

October 7, 2014

Read time 2 min

American psychologist Barry Schwartz has a very interesting TED talk on how we detach practical wisdom and moral from our work with rules and incentives. The result is bureaucracy. Unfortunately, no set of rules or incentives will ever create empathy.

[Link to video]

A couple of my favorite quotes from the talk:

  • “When things go wrong, as of course they do, we reach for two tools to try to fix them. One tool we reach for is rules. Better ones, more of them. The second tool we reach for is incentives. Better ones, more of them. What else, after all, is there?”
  • “The truth is that neither rules nor incentives are enough to do the job.”
  • “Rules and incentives may make things better in the short run, but they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing. And without intending it, by appealing to rules and incentives, we are engaging in a war on wisdom.”
  • “The truth is that there are no incentives that you can devise that are ever going to be smart enough. Any incentive system can be subverted by bad will.”
  • “Excessive reliance on incentives demoralizes professional activity in two senses of that word. It causes people who engage in that activity to lose morale and it causes the activity itself to lose morality.”
  • “As heads of organizations, we should strive to create environments that encourage and nurture both moral skill and moral will. Even the wisest and most well-meaning people will give up if they have to swim against the current in the organizations in which they work.”
  • “Wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one of us if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.”

Thanks to Harri Virtala for sending the video my way.

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