Friday, January 25, 2013

What is Favorable Behavior?

As I catalogue behavior, giving examples of the kind we’d like to see more of vs the kind we can do without, how do I distinguish between the two?

It’s easy to see that behavior is favorable when it results in good for both the individual and society.  Usually this is the case, but there are exceptions.

If you eat that extra piece of chocolate cake or fail to exercise, it may be bad for you and society, leading to personal medical problems associated with obesity and increasing overall healthcare costs to society (estimated at $145 billion in 2011).  If you buy a house you can afford, it’s good for you and drives the economy.  If you can't afford it, you may face foreclosure; and a large number of foreclosures can be disastrous for the economy.  Both personal and societal consequences are the same.

If you waste your money on goods or services responding to hype or non-scientific thinking, you harm yourself financially.  I have written before about organic food not being worth the price difference; about dietary supplements being unregulated, not tested to FDA standards and possibly dangerous; about other false remedies and magic accessories being more common today than in the days of the traveling snake oil salesmen.  Another example is bottled water , paying one thousand times the price of tap water for a less-regulated, less-inspected product (unless it comes from the company’s own tap, which is sometimes the case).  Although this wasted money may support jobs, the personal losses may eventually become a burden to society when it comes time to pay for college, healthcare and retirement.

Sometimes individuals benefit from a particular behavior, but society loses.  When they refuse to accept their share of responsibility for a mishap and sue for extraordinary amounts, they do well but increase the cost to everyone through higher insurance premiums and higher prices (due to warning labels, special packaging, restrictions, and added risk).  Sympathetic juries contribute to this problem.  

Similarly, when someone collects questionable benefits from the government or his company, the burden falls on us.  Collecting unemployment with no intention of looking for a job or worker’s compensation for a faked condition may seem clever, but it costs society.  Shoplifting profits the thief but harms honest shoppers.  Spending shareholder money on fancy office furnishings or extravagant trips may seem appropriate to a CEO, but from a societal standpoint, it’s no better than shoplifting or embezzling.  Politicians who spend our money to buy our votes are equally despicable.

Many of these behaviors, however, are encouraged or at least condoned by our reaction to them.  We tolerate the cheaters, reelect generous politicians, shrug at malingering, approve of outrageous jury awards and self-censor so as not to offend anyone.  We must recognize these behaviors as unacceptable and react accordingly.  We will not turn the corner on “America headed in the wrong direction” unless we start correcting our own failings and confronting the destructive behaviors of others.  America's failure will not come from big, bad government policies or greedy businesses, but from the accumulation of the small errors and indifference of 310 million citizens.

Some may argue that my examples and the tendencies they exhibit have been around for ages.  It’s only human nature to take the easy way out.  Why diet and exercise, for example, if you can get a pill or some surgery to solve the problem with a lot less effort?  It’s part of the culture to look out for ourselves instead of the overall societal good.  True, some of these tendencies run deep, but it’s easier to change a behavior than to change a culture or human nature.  In our interdependent society, where we can communicate anywhere in the world from a phone in our pocket, ramifications are more immediate, intense and widespread.  If our expectations are out of control, our judgment flawed, our discipline and sense of personal responsibility weak, the consequences will come back to haunt us more abruptly and severely than ever before.  Behavior matters.  Our hopes for America depend on increasing favorable and overtly rejecting detrimental behavior.

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