Workmanship • 9 November 2006 • The SnowBlog


          So I was rooting around in old emails sent to me by Rob, because this morning, by way of some advice I was given, I was reminded of an excellent Powerpoint slide Rob an' his mate Dan knocked up a few years back. At first glance it looked like standard consulting fare: good, beefy arrows pointing in the right direction, a couple of graphs, bold, to the point font. But it was a comedy slide intended to mock the useless, motherhood advice that most consultants trumpet. You know: To achieve our corporate vision, we must grow sales, improve return on capital, focus on improving performance and generate increased shareholder value. Yeees, those are good things, but it's not exactly an implementable plan, is it? On this slide that I was looking for, there was a big arrow pointing up labelled 'improve sales', and one pointing down labelled 'reduce costs'. And a graph trending upwards. And a pie chart. And the sad thing was that it wasn't too far removed from most of the slides I churned out as a consult-a-slave. 

Anyway, I couldn't find the slide, which was annoying. I did, however, come across an old article written by Rob which is interesting. So here it is for your delectation: 

The history of bad workmanship

Dinner party horror stories It's a subject that can bring even the most reluctant dinner guest out of their shell. Once a group of people start talking about rotten service they've received, or unsatisfactory work they've had done on their house, there's no stopping them. For some reason, bank staff draw the heaviest fire in my circle of friends; perhaps it's decorators with you or maybe plumbers. Is this something new or was it ever thus? A well-read friend of mine tells me Samuel Pepys, writing in the seventeenth century, complains of builders who never seem to make any progress. Whenever Pepys arrives, they are always on a break. It may be that complaints about the trades are as old as the trades themselves, but what if matters are getting worse? This article will explore how a new kind of psychology is revealing more and more about the sins flesh is heir to. Junk in the attic This new psychology takes the lessons biologists have learned about evolution, specifically the way it shapes animal behaviour, and applies them to human beings. At first, that sounds like a bad idea. After all, humans clearly aren't ruled by their instincts the way a chicken or a snake might be. One of the things that separates us from animals is our ability to make our own choices. Animals, you might say, seem to operate on a sort of perpetual autopilot from the moment they're born to when they die. Humans, on the other hand are self-aware and in control of their actions - completely different. But are we really creatures of pure intellect? What about (to take one example) emotions? Nobody sits down and decides to have emotions; they're there whether you want them or not, colouring your thinking. They're part of what it means to be human. Certainly we don't have a simple instinctive autopilot guiding us, but what if we have a sophisticated one, as befits creatures with such complex brains? There's no doubt each of us is born with a sense of free will, but we're also born with an 'Idiot's guide to human behaviour' wired into our brains which we fall back on - in between our bouts of self-determination. Our inheritance If we want to understand what our built-in 'Idiot's guide' might be prompting us to do, we need to understand where it came from. It is a compendium of instincts and natural abilities we inherited from our ancestors. We need to understand what their lives were like to appreciate the instincts we've inherited from them. And that's a shocking idea. It's bad enough to accept that despite all our sophistication, we are still sometimes prompted by instinct. But those instincts aren't even appropriate to our daily lives, in a lot of cases. They come from a time before houses and agriculture, when the human race was composed of nomadic groups wandering the plains of Africa, before we spread out and conquered the globe. That period holds the key because it's the last time the human race made an evolutionary jump. We know that's true because modern humans, no matter where on the globe their ancestors lived, are all pretty similar. We vary quite a bit cosmetically, but internally and genetically, we're virtually identical. It would be tough to explain how any genetic changes that took place after the great expansion could have been propagated evenly to all the tribes of the Earth. If that was the last time we did any major evolving, then it was the lifestyle of the African plains that put the finishing touches to the architecture of our brains. Whatever instincts are preserved in our genes, they were shaped and tested by our time on the African savannah. Most interestingly, we all lived as part of a group in those days - maybe averaging forty or fifty individuals - and we evolved to suit life in a group. There was no second pocket of humans living as loners; we're all the descendants of people who lived in close-knit communities and we've inherited their programming. And if those early nomads had the same genetic make-up as us, then they had the same brains - which means they must have been talking to each other. If we want to understand what life was like for them, a good place to start is to figure out what they needed language for. What made language (in the jargon of the era) a 'killer app'? Language and hunting The first thought most people come up with is that language was important because it helped us hunt together. They imagine the further back in time one goes, the more predatory our species would have been. In the popular imagination, early man is a dedicated hunter - he always carries a spear, he's always on the lookout for something to roast. A quick glance at the human body reveals a distinct lack of armour or offensive weaponry. Certainly, if we were a species of full-time hunters, any advantage language might have conferred would have been very welcome. Think of any large African animal of today and it's difficult to imagine a lone human tackling one successfully. It seems likely that in those days our best weapon would have been teamwork. Certainly the savannah would have been a dangerous place for a soft, juicy mammal with no claws, horns or hoofs - most of us have jaws so narrow we can barely take a bite out of a big sandwich. Teamwork would have been our only and best hope for survival. That's why this era would have had such an impact on how humans behave in groups. It's a little like imagining the whole human race used to live in submarines - one per community. Survival was intimately connected to the survival of one's crewmates. You couldn't wander off to live on your own on the Savannah any more than you can stride out the airlock of a submarine. So teamwork and survival seem to go hand in hand, but survival is not the same thing as hunting. There isn't much evidence to suggest we were mighty hunters, so we can't use that accomplishment to explain language. Even amongst the few twenty-first century tribes still living the Stone Age life, hunting prowess is more a matter of exaggeration than fact. An infrequent big kill seems to eclipse the steady diet of vegetables, fruit and small game when it comes time to describe a typical meal. I might just as well claim that my Christmas dinner is my typical midday snack. Teamwork would have been central to our continued existence, but a picture of our ancestors patrolling the plains like teams of Special Forces commandos is misleading. It's possible that language had more to do with getting along than it did with hunting. In terms of horrendously mixed metaphors, language might have been what oiled the machinery of social interaction and the glue that held it together. But what specifically did we use it for? The most intriguing suggestion is that we used it for gossiping. Gossip To understand why a species would want to gossip, we have to think about what life for a typical group of forty or fifty humans was like in those days. Imagine you're part of a group like that. You don't work for yourself. The food you gather, the work you do is for the group and in turn the group provides you with what you need. The most important consideration for you is to make sure that you're getting your fair share of the rewards. That means you'll have lots of conflicting demands on your time. You'll want to check up on behaviour all over the group to make sure you're not being cheated. But if you're hunting, you're not monitoring the food stores. If you're keeping an eye on the food stores, you're not seeing how much fruit is really being picked. And if you put yourself on fruit detail, you're not spying on your mate or guarding your offspring. Sooner or later you have to trust someone. Sooner, in fact, because you probably risk your life every time you go hunting or fall asleep. Every individual in a group will want to make sure they're getting their fair share of the group's success and at the same time they'll also want to make sure no one else is getting a free ride. It's difficult to do that if you can only be in one place at once and you haven't yet evolved language. Fairness Let's think for a moment about what that constant monitoring has done to us. Anyone who has shared student accommodation knows what it's like - the compulsive labelling of things in the fridge, the arguments over whose milk, whose biscuits - the constant bickering. What a lot of us fail to understand is that the endless rehashing of who has a right to what isn't necessarily a sign of discord; it's a mechanism for avoiding it. In pygmy tribes in New Guinea and Aboriginal parties in Australia the same conversations take place. We're always testing the boundaries of our entitlement and jealously guarding our personal property. Life in a group is a perfect opportunity to give your all and get nothing in return - to get screwed, in other words. Our species' obsession with fairness is one of the ways of keeping everything in balance - and it's a lot easier to do if you can talk to each other. So imagine again that you're a member of a group of ancestral humans. You're constantly trying to spot the cheats, to calculate your share, to work out who it's safe to trust. With language, you can pool your information. It's like trust radar. It can give you an early warning for trouble and it can help you see the big picture. You can also use it to build alliances against shared adversaries or in favour of common goals. It's the mechanism we need to make trusting others viable. We may have finally arrived in what some call the Information Age, but ironically that's how we started out. Before money was invented, before we had much in the way of possessions, we were trading information about each other. Reputations With language, we have a nice little feedback loop. Monitoring others and swapping information about who's trustworthy is the input side. Deciding where to place our trust or allegiance and complaining like hell when it's abused is the output side. Each of us go round and round that loop - adjusting our network of trust and then monitoring its success. We do it so well and so instinctively we don't even realise it's happening a lot of the time. But it's our compulsion to behave this way that explains part of our fascination with soap operas. They're like case studies for the part of our brains in charge of community relations. We are fascinated to see if Jolene realises that Brad is cheating on her with Clarice and how that will affect her decision to sell the coffee shop. It gives the 'social accounting' module in our brain something to get its teeth into, now that most of us don't know our neighbours. Bad service How does all this link back to bad service? Well clearly ideas about evolutionary psychology can be taken in a lot of directions. One fruitful line of investigation is to apply these ideas to business, to see what light they shed on job satisfaction or customer complaints. The single example we're considering here is about not getting the service you paid for. What does evolutionary psychology tell us about that? Well one thing we know is that reputation plays a large part in governing group behaviour. If each of us place our trust only in those we have a good opinion of, it stands to reason that our own reputations are something we'll instinctively want to protect. Yet most people who do work for you or come to your home are strangers. You probably got the name of their company from the Yellow Pages. The link between their actions and their reputation has been severed. The next person to pick to pick a name from the Yellow Pages won't know about the bad experience you had. The old-fashioned way But imagine falling back on the original mechanism for regulating behaviour. Imagine there was no Yellow Pages or local paper or advertising. How would you find a plumber or a decorator? You'd keep your ears open or you'd ask around. The next time dinner party guests gave in to their instinct to pass on tales of rewarded or abused trust you'd be taking note. Imagine a world where the only way a business could get more work was if their customers spread the word. How long would it be before bad workmen went the way of the dodo? It's worth a thought next time you reach for the phone book.


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