How to Get People to Accept Unfairness

Say you want to swindle people. You want to force them to take your bad deals, and give you the minimum amount of lip in return. There's an easy way to sway them. And scientists have demonstrated it with a simple game.

Welcome to another lesson in practical evil! In the past, we've mostly talked about how to quietly give people the infected-feces-covered end of the stick. We want to be evil without anyone noticing. That's a valid strategy, but what if you have to come right out and (metaphorically) roger someone in broad daylight? How will you get them to accept a really raw deal?

To figure this out, we turn to a little thing called the Ultimatum Game. Two participants get a sum of money. One of them decides how they will split the cash. The other either accepts or rejects the offer. If the second person accepts the offer, the cash is divided up and the people go on their way. If they reject the offer, neither participant will get any money. Rationally, it's in the second person's interest to accept any offer, as no matter how small it is, it's better than nothing. In practice, the second person will almost always reject low offers. Slight swindlings, like when the splitter offers them forty or even thirty percent, they can let stand. Down below that, less than twenty percent of people accept free money, because it's not enough free money.

There was one way, a research team found, that people will settle for less. Give them a little time to grow accustomed to the indignity. When dividing up a pot of ten Euros, between zero and fifteen percent of people would accept offers that gave them only one or two Euros. Then the research team started asking people to wait ten minutes, just ten minutes, before they made their decision. The acceptance rate went up to between 65 and 75 percent.

There are two ways of looking at this. Either the short delay allowed people to calm down and make, what was in the end, the most rational choice. Or, the ten minute delay allowed people to come to accept that they had been cheated by their partner. Either way, aspiring dictators take note. Giving people just a little benefit if they knuckle under to otherwise unfair conditions is possible. All you have to do is give them a little time to adjust to everything. Delay votes that will overthrow your policies. Put people off, just for a bit, when they want to change your ways. If you can't prevent a revolution, stretch it out until the momentum is spent. Eventually, people will accept a substandard system, because it's little bit better than not accepting it, and they've come to realize that.

[Via Let Me Sleep On It.]