Working For Seagulls

Charity, like work, has less to do with achieving anything, but lots to do with feeling good. This article in the Guardian gets to the heart of Big Numbers and the Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

"What's going on here, some psychologists argue, is the "purchase of moral satisfaction": instead of trying to picture the scale of the problem and donate accordingly, people just name the price required to achieve the fuzzy feeling of having done their bit. "The level of spending needed to purchase a warm glow depends on personality and financial situation," writes Eliezer Yudkowsky, at the blog Less Wrong. "But it certainly has nothing to do with the number of birds."

Work, also, is about gaining "moral satisfaction". The feel of having done something, rather than achieving measurable output.

Thus, managers feel they have done their job if they have got everyone busy on little tasks, even if those tasks are poaintless and produce nothing of value.


The Seagull Manager is a typical example: flies in, dumps on everyone, flies out again. I suppose the less numerate managers are, the less they can visualise big numbers, so the more they are going to be wasting their employees' time.

More excerpts from the Guardian:

"Humans are terrible with big numbers. The financial meltdown has reminded us that even highly numerate people can't really feel, in their bones, the vast difference between a million, a billion and a trillion... Trying to be helpful, commentators will explain that, say, the £850bn spent to bail out Britain's banks would, in the form of £1 coins, stretch several times "to the moon and back". But this is worse than useless, because the distance from Earth to the moon is exactly the kind of big number we struggle to visualise."

"As any charity fundraising expert will tell you, one consequence of this is the phenomenon known as "scope insensitivity": we're troubled by the thought of a starving child, but we're definitely not 1,000 times more troubled by the thought of 1,000 starving children. One famous study asked people how much they'd be willing to pay to save 2,000 birds from dying in oil ponds; the average answer was about £49. And 20,000 or 200,000? The answers were £48 and £53, respectively."

"Come to think of it, isn't the whole world of work designed to encourage us in the mistaken idea that a 12-hour day is more effective than a three-hour day?"

No comments: