Is Freakonomics too cynical?
I don’t think so, but some people do. Occasionally we hear from readers who say it’s a shame that we’ve called attention to so much deceit, trickery, and cheating among sumo wrestlers, school teachers, tax filers, and online daters. I could argue back and say, “Hey, don’t we also call attention to people who don’t cheat, like the office workers who eat Paul Feldman‘s bagels?”
The point isn’t that you can divide people into piles of good people or bad people, cheaters or non-cheaters. The point is that people’s behavior is determined by how the incentives of a particular scenario are aligned.
So it was interesting to see this article on Salon‘s Machinist by Farhad Manjoo about a contest run by the website Fishbowl DC to decide Washington’s two hottest media folks. While agreeing that the winners were indeed a comely pair, Manjoo reports that the contest was a total rig job:
[The winners] Capps and Andrews acknowledge that they won only because their online friends — without their express encouragement, they both say — built software “bots” that voted thousands of times for each of them. The bots were distributed on Unfogged, a humorously wonky blog and discussion site popular with D.C. types, within a day of the poll’s opening. If you downloaded and ran the software, your machine began tallying up votes for Capps and Andrews faster than a Diebold rigged for George W. Bush.
Which makes me say:
1. The stakes don’t have to be very high for people to cheat.
2. When no punishment exists for cheating, it’s pretty damn appealing.
3. We have been accused of stuffing a ballot box or two ourselves, although there were no bots involved (that I know of).
4. Can you please point me in the direction of the Diebold folks who rigged those machines? I would love to interview them.