Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Cheater as "Rational Fool"

I’ve been reading a lot of nouveau-self-help-marketing books these days, which is a radical departure for me. On my granddad’s insistence, I took a Dale Carnegie course in high school, but aside from that, I’ve largely steered away from the self-help genre.

Lately I’ve developed a taste for some of these books and their straightforward morsels of wisdom, intended for entrepreneurs and artists and all of us who must market our products or services.

One of these wise little nuggets that keeps cropping up is this simple truth: Give people a reason to trust you. Marketing guru Seth Godin harps about this in his latest book, Tribes. Harry Beckwith noted it in his 1997 book, Selling the Invisible. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod alludes to this several times in his book, Ignore Everybody.

This is a new concept, that you should be trustworthy?

I’m not poking fun at these writers for pointing out the obvious. Sometimes we need people to point out the obvious to us. It never hurts to hear, read, or entertain a new (old) idea.

A passage in MacLeod’s book, Ignore Everybody, brought it home for me: “Regardless of how the world changes, regardless of what new technologies, business, models, and social architectures are coming down the pike, the one thing the ‘new realities’ cannot take away from you is trust.”

Trust in business isn’t a new idea. Science journalist Matt Ridley explores the evolution of trust and cooperation in human society in his 1996 book, The Origins of Virtue. Viewing life as a vast tit-for-tat or prisoner’s dilemma game, you’d think most of us would conclude, time after time, that deceit is in our interest. (See the following illustrative clip from the British game show, Golden Balls.)

But Ridley argues that humans as a whole have instead learned to cooperate, to trust each other and trade fairly, and even to behave altruistically. In the prisoner’s dilemma construct, as in life, cheating might benefit the cheater in the short term; he's a sort of offshoot of Amartya Sen's homo economicus, a "rational fool." 

But developing a reputation for honesty and fair play benefits the moral person in the long-run. Business doesn't always have to be a zero-sum game. Communicate clearly, establish mutual trust, and everybody wins.

Case in point: occasionally, clients will ask me to slap a GPS tracker on a subject’s car. That surely makes surveillance easier, but I’m not willing to do it. Bottom line—it’s cheating.

First of all, it’s illegal in Tennessee, a Class D misdemeanor. Secondly, it removes the creative, problem solving, part of the job almost entirely. It’s a crutch that inhibits the kind of free thinking this job requires.

I have friends who rely entirely on GPS map systems to navigate. They key in their destination, listen to the computery voice coolly issue directives in stilted English, and follow mindlessly. They don’t know how to read a map. They can’t think in terms of cardinal points on a compass. Without that bossy electronic voice, they are helpless.

I love GPS. I’ve used it hundreds of times while flying and sailing. But as an old Kiwi sailor once told my wife Kim, “GPS is a navigational aid. It all comes ‘round to you in the end.”

Likewise, using a GPS tracker removes a good deal of the “you” from the equation. If you’re fully engaged, you’re thinking about where your subject might go and why, anticipating actions based on your observations and knowledge.

Is he wearing workout clothes? Does she seem anxious or dejected in the Safeway checkout line? Is she dressed to go out and in a desperate hurry to drop off the kids? Using a GPS tracker you’d never know. You simply get an alert that the subject is at the alleged paramour’s apartment and you drive over and take pictures. You’re missing the wider picture, the sense of direction and broader understanding that you only get from doing the work the hard way.

I tell my clients up front that we do not use GPS trackers. They’re not legal. Losing my investigator’s license to win a client or make a case a little easier is an example of short-term, “rational-fool” thinking.

This approach may cost a little bit more in surveillance fees, and it may lose me an occasional client. But when I’m on the stand and the opposing attorney asks, “Did you at any point use a GPS tracking device to follow my client?” I’ll be able to say with conviction, “No, I did not.” I stay out of trouble, and my client’s attorney isn’t stuck with expensive, inadmissible evidence.

 It’s not hard. It’s a matter of trust.


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