Friday, January 24, 2014

A Deviant in the Modern World

On December 11, 2008, Bernard L. Madoff was arrested after forty-eight years of work in the Investments Industry. Madoff had managed to bilk over seventeen billion dollars from his investors before America’s largest Ponzi scheme had been exposed. There’s a famous video of Madoff returning to his seven million dollar Pen house. He’s wearing a dark jacket with his collar pulled up and he has a baseball cap pulled down low, concealing his eyes. He’s forced to wade through a crowd of flashing cameras and outstretched microphones. A photographer gives Madoff a firm shove. Madoff sputters back a few steps. The scene has the energy of a lynching, but no one feels bad for Bernie Madoff, apart from his close friends and family. In late 2008, Madoff had transgressed against society and society, arguably, made an example of him. Bernie Madoff, age seventy-five, was sentenced to one hundred and fifty years in prison for his violation of society’s norms. Madoff’s crimes went far past simple fraud. His crimes affected more than just the Americans who punished him. Hundreds of businesses had unwittingly invested into Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and when it collapsed, all of their money scattered to the wind. Thousands of wealthy Americans were burned by Madoff. This scheme emptied out the tills of numerous schools, small businesses and charitable organizations. Old men, about to retire, found that they had no money to retire with. For a time in 2009, Bernie Madoff was the most hated man in America, but Madoff hadn’t planned to behave so monstrously.
 Dan Ariely, in a ‘TED talk’, explored the roots of cheating. In his lecture, he used the term ‘Fudge Factor’ to describe how much unethical behavior an individual can tolerate, in themselves, while still considering themselves moral. This ‘Fudge Factor’ seems to be apparent in the case of David Kugel. Kugel was an Investment Trader for Bernie Madoff for nearly forty years. In that time, Kugel helped his mother, brother, and children set up investment accounts alongside his own at Bernard L. Madoff Securities. In Joseph Ax’s article in Reuters, Kugel reportedly said “[1]…even though I knew everything was wrong, that he [Madoff] was fooling people and sending out fraudulent accounts, I thought he was investing it and the money was safe," Kugel believed that he wasn’t endangering his family by involving their money in something unethical and inherently risky. Social Control Theory is based on the belief that an aversion to deviant behavior hinges on two subsets of control: Inner-Control and Outer-Control. Inner-Control is our morals. Outer-Controls are our laws. Madoff’s scheme seemingly had lasted for decades on end. Kugel had no rational reason to believe that the scheme would ever come crashing down. He had weak Outer-Controls. That doesn’t explain why his Inner-Controls allowed him to behave as he did. For that, I return to Dan Ariely’s TED Talk on cheating. Ariely had set up a series of experiments to understand why people cheat while others do not. In his first experiment, he gathered a group of college student and gave them a paper with twenty math problems. He told them that they would receive money for every math problem they answered correctly. He then gave them five minutes to answer the entire page. At the end, he collected all their pages. For most of the students, they were only able to answer four problems.
 Next, he did the experiment, again. He gave them five minutes, again. However, he didn’t collect the pages. He asked the students to just tell him how many problems they were able to solve. Now, on average, people were reporting that they solved seven problems. He had expected that the students might lie, but no one had claimed that they had solved all twenty problems. This can be explained by the ‘Fudge Factor.’ The students knew they were lying, but they didn’t think the lie was so horrible.
 Ariely wanted to see if he could get the students to cheat more. He set up another experiment with similar variables. He gave students twenty problems with only five minutes to perform the task. Ariely also didn’t ask for the pages back. He asked that the students reported the number of problems they were able to solve. The variable that changed was the money. Ariely didn’t hand out cash for correct questions. He handed out tokens that could be later redeemed for money. What he found was that the students cheated more when they were offered tokens. In his lecture, Ariely uses an example to illustrate his findings. “[2]…How bad would you feel if you take a pencil from work home compared to how bad would you feel about taking ten cents out of a Pity-Cash box?”
 This relates to Kugel because he wasn’t working directly with money. Everything Kugel did was a step removed from tangible cash. Kugel was working with the stocks and bonds. He was dealing with numbers on a spreadsheet. Kugel’s Inner-Controls weren’t being violated. For him, Madoff was stealing, but he wasn’t really hurting anybody. Had Madoff put a gun to someone’s forehead and demanded their wallet, Kugel’s Inner-Controls might’ve been violated and he wouldn’t have aided Madoff in perpetuating the Ponzi scheme.
This can be further explained by Kugel’s colleagues. Kugel was on trial, along with four other former Madoff Associates. All of them had allegedly aided Bernie Madoff in continuing this multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. Dan Ariely explains the phenomena in his lecture, stating ‘[3]…If someone from our In-Group cheats and we see them cheating, we feel it’s more appropriate.” People tend to take cues from the people around them. Kugel behaved like he did because Madoff and everyone else were behaving in a similar fashion.

Daniel Ariely; – [2] [3]

Joseph Ax; Reuters – [1]
Ex-Bernie Madoff Employee Testifies He Made Fake Trades with Co-Workers

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