Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The Scrutiny Bias

Barry Bonds. Lance Armstrong. Roger Clemens. Tiger Woods. Alex Rodriguez. Marion Jones. Does it seem like the people on the top are all getting busted with cheating lately? (Or in Tiger’s case, cheating on his wife) Beyond sports, what about Enron and their imaginative financial tricks, Clinton and his love of cigars, Rush Limbaugh and his addiction to pain meds. Are the people at the top all crooked? Did those athletes get there solely by cheating? Is there no chance for the clean contender to make it to the victor’s circle?

Let’s talk about the Scrutiny Bias.

Never heard of the Scrutiny Bias?

That’s because I’m just now making it up.

The concept is simple, and I want you to explore it on your own time and let me know if you think it has merit. Here’s the pervasive idea (and one that seems logical): people who cheat at sports (and in other arenas) make it to the top because of their lack of scruples. In essence, because they are able to cheat. That leaves all the honest people foundering in last place. The reason Walmart is so successful is because they employ unfair business practices. Everyone else is honest, which is why they can’t make it in this dog-eat-dog world.

The Scrutiny Bias presents it in another way: the only reason the people at the top are caught cheating is because we only care to investigate the winners. Who wants to dig into the affairs of the 12th guy on the money list? Who cares what the guy with the bronze medal did to deserve it? Nobody. Their lucky winnings is that we leave them alone.

A few concepts:

1. The statistical likelihood that the few people cheating are the ones coming out on top is small.

2. We already know some runners-ups have cheated, it’s just not as scandalous because the fruits of their shenanigans don’t inspire the same degree of awe and envy (Sammy Sosa’s corked bat would’ve been a bigger deal had he won the home run derby).

3. We are all cheaters to some degree.

Wow. Number three really snuck up on us there, didn’t it? But here’s the thought experiment: if your life was subject to President-elect scrutiny, would it hold up? Have you ever stolen music, cut in line, cheated on a loved one in thought or deed? Have you given preferential treatment to someone because of their relation to you, or their looks and charm, or because it would financially reward you in the end? Have you ever cheated on your taxes, been rude or hostile with a client/customer? Have you borrowed something with the intention of giving it back, but without asking? Have you rolled through a few thousand stopsigns? Do you habitually drive five miles over the speed limit? Did you drink before you were 21? Do you use recreational drugs? Have you ever flirted with a co-worker, or said something sexually or racially insensitive around them?

Man, that was a hard list to come up with. It took some wild imagination on my part. Some of these things are very big deals, some might be explained away, I probably left out your worst offense. The cool thing is this: not many people care about most of these things. Not many people care about you (or me). But what if you won? What if you were the best? What if people envied and admired you, would they want to know how you did it? I think they would.

Walmart is a great example. Often cited for their poor business practices, I enjoy asking their detractors what some of these are. I hear they don’t pay well (none of the small business owners I’ve worked for paid very well either). I hear they don’t give enough benefits or health coverage (the small businesses I’ve worked for gave zero of either). They have a lot of employee complaints (they have a lot of employees, and a lot of people wondering if anyone has ever complained).

Look at it this way: if we aggregated a random sampling of small businesses to equal the footprint and size of Walmart, and then dug through those joints for the worst that we could find, what would we come up with? My guess is a pile of dead bodies, a gazillion lawsuits, a shitty BBB rating, a bunch of employees with no benefits, shitty pay, and no chance of promotion, etc… Basically, the same deal Walmart provides. But nobody cares to dig into a million small businesses. There’s no scrutiny.

My guess is that the percentage of players using performance enhancing drugs in baseball during the 80’s and 90’s was greater than 50%. Most of those people still weren’t good enough to break records. Nobody cares. We dig and dig into the people at the top until we find untoward activity. Maybe, just maybe, if we scrutinized anyone with such vigor, we would find what we were looking for. Maybe our looking is as much a tell as their doing. Does that mean we shouldn’t look? No. It means we should look around a bit more evenly. And we should understand how this bias might color our conclusions. Rather than assume the cheaters always win, we might want to couch that in more accurate terms: Most of the people competing are cheaters in some fashion or another. Most of the people who win are . . . people.

2 replies to “The Scrutiny Bias”

I think it would be more difficult to give scrutiny evenly across the entire field of any profession. The ‘pro’ of going after those at the top is the visibility such exposure gives to the rest of the playing field; a sort of warning that if you make it and you were cheating, then this is what you can expect.

Of course, this can backfire too. A small business owner, for example, looks at Walmart exposed for the way it got to the top and thinks, “Well, yeah, they’re getting pretty bad press right now, but look at those billion dollar profits! Man, I’d take some bad press if I could have those sort of profits.” Same could be said for any of the lesser players in any field. Maybe they’re willing to take the hit to get the moo-lah.

Interesting post.

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