About the world

When I was finishing my masters and deciding where to go for a PhD, I did what every student in my position would do: ask around for advice. I talked to some of my professors that did do a PhD to find out about their experiences, where they went and so on. Being a theory oriented person, I could see more attractive opportunities in Europe other than the US, and the programs looked very different (from the duration, style, tuition, etc.). When confronted with these options, I got almost unanimously the same argument:

The quality of education in the US will be better, it is a longer phd but you will leave with more opportunities and more knowledge. It will be expensive, there will be sleepless nights, you’ll have no vacations for a long time and will kill yourself to work, but it is worth it. In Europe things are much more relaxed and you will do a lot of tourism. Sure you’ll end with a PhD, but much less worthy.

I found that somehow strange… This was not too great of a case for the US, nevertheless they wanted me to go and sacrifice some years of my life for a title. Suffice to say that I did not apply for any positions in the US… In the end, I got a position in Vienna, Austria, and that’s where I went to.

Looking back, having finished a PhD in Europe and understanding better how the American programs work, I sort of see their point. I am sure you see it as well, so I will not go over that. My intention here is to say what they have not told me (maybe because most or all of them had got a PhD from an American university). Given the choice, I would *never* exchange the years I spent in Vienna and Paris for a PhD from an ivy-league school in the US. Here’s why.

I moved to Vienna alone. It was the first time I was living outside my parents’ house and I started big: other side of the world in a country whose language I did not speak. I not only had to learn how to manage my own life, but how to manage my life in a society completely different from the one I was used to. And do a PhD on my spare time. In trying to adapt, I started looking at life differently. Suddenly answers like “that’s the way things are” or “it’s just how it works” stopped making sense because here I was at a place where things were not like that and, guess what? Everything still works! (Even better sometimes…) The opportunity to travel a lot (Europe is really very small… and a bunch of different countries are just a 3-hour flight away) has contributed to that feeling. Everywhere there was something curious, something different, a new unsaid rule that everyone followed. And as we try to fit in, we test different behaviors on ourselves, and realize that many “defaults” we have can be changed to something that works better, or to something that is more “you”. It is interesting the moment you feel more at home at a place that is completely different from the one where you were born, simply because that is more in line with your values. I feel like those years were a deconstruction and reconstruction of myself, and I feel much more comfortable in my skin today than I did 6 years ago. Hopefully this will only get better with time ūüôā

Sure I did learn a lot scientifically as well, and I did get a PhD, and a job. My professors might think that I got lucky. (I think so too). But even if I hadn’t got a position, and was unemployed in Vienna today, still I would not change a thing. I am a resourceful person and I could get a job eventually, even outside academia. What I have learned and how much I have grown during this experience is beyond any career-oriented measurement of success.

You might argue that the same would happen if I had moved to the US, but I don’t think so. We know too much about them. We get their music, movies, series, news, culture… From what I know, life would not be so much different from the life I had before. Also, I have lived in the US long ago. Back then, I did not realize all the nuances and particularities I noticed last semester, when I was living there for a few months again. Since we know so much, it is a hard place to feel like an outsider. Maybe it will be more comfortable, but less eye-opening.

What I want to show now, specially now, is that going to the US does not have to be the ultimate dream or the best/only choice. The world is a big place, and great opportunities are available everywhere. We just need to remember that opportunities should encompass employment *and* life as well.

About obesity

I am taking the opportunity of being at CMU for a semester and attending a course on behavioral economics and public policy. Behavioral economics is a topic that caught my attention a while ago and it’s been interesting to see it under the lens of public policy. The course is quite American-centered, and being a non-American (or “alien”, as the government likes to call me) makes it only more interesting. I am trying to understand what is the mindset, what is the “normal” around here, and I am still in awe every now and then. It’s a good state to be in. But anyway…

Today in class the subject of obesity was briefly mentioned. It is seen as a public health problem, and we were studying ways (read, public policies) to motivate people to loose weight. But that’s treating the symptom, not the cause. I like to treat causes, seems more effective. So, for the reasons why obesity is a problem, it was mentioned: decrease in food prices (specially unhealthy food), lack of time (arguably not true, we just suck at time management), sedentary lives, working parents and larger portions (why America? why??). We might add dining out and drinking soda like crazy to that list, as discussed here. Fair enough. These all look like reasonable reasons for a less healthy diet and consequent increase on obesity. Then I had an epiphany: those reasons are not America-exclusive. People are more stressed everywhere, both parents are working everywhere, sedentary lives are everywhere, cheap fast food and soda is available everywhere. So what creates this enormous demand for big portions of deep fried chicken in America specifically? [1]

Unfortunately I do not have an answer for that. What I know is that the unhealthy eating seems to be an acceptable thing. I never saw so many ads for food as I see it on TV here. Really. If you are ever in the US and have a chance to watch some TV, do it. Even for half an hour. It is an interesting experience (not only because of the food ads). I have the feeling that one in every three ads is about food. And not healthy food: fried chicken, giant burgers, 2 feet (~60 cms) pizza, a burrito stuffed with three types of different melted cheese, pancakes made with buttery croissant dough, chocolate cookies filled with more chocolate and marshmallows… you name it. Ironically, another third fraction of the commercials are dedicated to medicaments. As if it is not enough to bombard people with ads for greasy and processed food, they go to the next level and actually *scorn* healthy eating. Just take a look at this or that. Americans, do you have any idea how absurd it is to have an ad like that? This should have never ever been approved!! I would boycott Domino’s if I ever ate there.

I am not sure if these ads can be counted as a cause or effect of obesity, it is a chicken-and-egg problem. What I know is that regulating such things properly will do no harm, but only good [2]. It’s a no-brainer. On top of motivating people to loose weight, how about cutting on the temptation for eating in the first place?

[1] As a side note, Brazil is also not the healthiest country around. And I lived there, and even so I cannot explain what happens… Seems to be a cultural thing (that needs to change!).

[2] Regulation is needed when people lack the common sense and allow such horrendous ads. Unfortunately, those that make regulations are also people.

About questions

I used to think that people, in general, had problems when it comes to asking questions. What was my surprise when I recently realized that, in fact, we also have problems in *getting* questions! Given the important status questions have for the exchange and construction of ideas [1], it is really a shame that we both don’t like to ask questions or receive them.

You might be very familiar with the feeling of holding back a question because you might sound [insert here whatever adjective works best for you]. But being asked? Yes. It turns out that instead of listening a question as it should be, i.e. just a question, we add our own interpretation to it and reply (or not) to that. We see questions as criticism, as challenges, as disagreement… but have you ever thought that it might be, in reality, *just* a question? (In spite of what your biased self might “notice” about language, tone, etc.)

Try that for a while. Get rid of your prejudices and take the questions as they come. You will see life becomes much much lighter. Answer sincerely (even if it means saying “I do not know the answer”) and ask sincerely (even if you think it’s a [same adjective as before] question). You will notice how communication improves, how it is possible to have an argument without it getting to your head and how everyone feels less intimidated. It’s good all around!

And if it just so happens that someone does have an ill-intended question, you can see the disappointment in their eyes with your honest answer ūüėČ


[1] I must leave here a special thanks to my classmates from grad041, who taught me the importance of argumentation, and that friendship is independent of agreement. There are very few circles where questions are so well received as with these people ūüėÄ


Three seemingly unrelated facts have caught my attention this week (maybe motivated by an e-mail that arrived just in time). It got me thinking about the nationality business again. Strong nationalist feelings never made sense to me. Maybe it is because I am not exactly proud of my origin country, maybe because I have moved and traveled so much that borders cause more hassle than help, but there is something about nationalism that I just don’t get. I thought that, at least in academia, we would be better than that as our community is highly international, but these events make me think otherwise, unfortunately.

The first thing that happened was the release of results of Marie Curie projects. This is organized by an European funding agency, it is open for anyone to apply with a project to be developed at a host institution somewhere in Europe. I applied for France, to follow-up on the post-doc I have until November. It was not accepted, sadly, but that’s another story. The interesting thing was the e-mail I got from the French branch of this agency. It mentioned very proudly that France was the second country in terms of number of approved projects, being only behind the UK. Being a Brazilian researcher applying to work with an American coordinator, nothing made less sense than counting my project as “French” only because it just so happens we are both in France. I know a French researcher that applied for a project in Germany, a Russian researcher that applied for a project in Austria… By the way, the whole idea of this grant is to move people around, so you cannot apply for a country where you have lived in for more than one year in the past three years. So most applicants for an institution in country X are not actually from X. How do you consider a project being from one country or the other like this? Worse, you create a fake sense of pride for the people that happen to be in their home country, and prejudice against foreigners. The foreigners that contributed for that count in the first place.

I am applying for another thing, a permanent position this time, at Inria in France. There is a document with many many sections to fill in, and at some point they ask us to list our publications. The subsections for the publications are split in “International Journals”, “Reviewed international conferences” and then “National Journals” and “Reviewed national conferences”. What do they mean by international and national? Is national French? Is national a conference or journal that have the name of a country in the title? If I am in France and publish a paper in a workshop organized in Brazil by a Brazilian university, is this international? On top of not being clear, the division of publications into national/international suggests there is a difference of importance between these two types of events. I do not know any conference or journal that restricts submissions based on the nationality of authors (also because authors usually are from different countries) so there should not be a difference of importance based on this criteria alone.

At this point one might think that the bureaucrats are to blame. They are the ones organizing reports and templates for applications, and they are the ones that think of boundaries between national and international. The researchers are aware of the nonsense of this distinction, and are only interested in the development of science for the sake of the human kind. Right? Well… here I am at a workshop in France, which is being streamed for three locations, whose invited speaker was German and gave the talk in English, but the rest of the talks are being given in French! The guy talking now has even the slides in English, but he is speaking French. If the invited speaker was talking in English, would it kill them to give a talk that he (and I) would understand better? Sigh… I am not a native English speaker, but this language made it possible for me to get where I am, so I have no problem in using it if it is enabling a better integration of the people in the world. Franchement…

In spite of all that, I don’t feel like an outsider. On the contrary, the outsiders for me are people who give so much importance to the nationality question, and I feel sorry for them. If they have some kind of prejudice against me because of where I am from, it is really *their* loss, because I am awesome xD

About Black Friday

As I was idly browsing the internet at the airport today, I came across a piece of news from BBC that got my attention. The title read: “Police issue Black Friday warning to retailers”. What has the police got to do with it? Apparently, during last year’s Black Friday, at a supermarket chain in England, there was such a great chaos between customers that the police had to be called. Mind you, these are people fighting over TV sets, computers or stereo systems.

If you live in a happy world and has no idea what I am talking about, then I give you two choices: (1) stop here and go on being happy or (2) continue reading and become a little less happy and a little more disappointed on human kind.

You decided to continue, I admire your courage.

Black Friday is one Friday in the end of November (presumably after Thanksgiving — yes, it’s an American thing, surprise, surprise!) when retailers give ridiculous discounts (50, 60,… even 90% off) on their products. So far so good… kinda. But when people hear crazy discounts, people apparently go crazy themselves. Black Fridays are characterized by long lines in front of shops, with people arriving as early as 3am, the chaos inside shops, with people filling up their carts with whatever only because it might be sold out on the next 5 minutes, and eventual arguments between customers over who will get that last washing machine at 70% off. Things can get pretty ugly, as some videos show.

The news at BBC only briefly explained the situation, and the fact that the police asked stores to be better prepared, and then went on saying that the concerning supermarket chain decided not to participate on Black Friday this year and what would be the consequences for their Christmas sales. As if this is the thing we should be focusing on… For me this is like saying, yeah, there is this war somewhere and a bunch of people are dying, but let’s see how this affects the missile market. Granted, it was BBC Business… What else can you expect? I cannot avoid the disappointment though.

First of all, I am disappointed at people (big news) that became so much consumerist as to reach this point of savageness (is this a word?) for getting products they don’t actually need. Only because they are on sale. How often do you need to change your TV set, mobile phone, mp3 player, headphones, laptops, tablets, screen projectors, suitcases, refrigerators, toasters, and so on? The new rule seems to be: as often as new models are released (or maybe half that frequency, which would still be too much, in my opinion). And companies many sure of having brand new stuff for you every year. They need the revenue, keep the economy active and the money circulating and everybody is happy, right? Wrong! I, for one, am not happy at all, and I have a feeling I am not alone.
Have you ever thought where your unused gadgets end up? Maybe you are lucky to have a big enough house, with a basement to dump all the stuff for now. But in the long run, your space will end, as it is finite, or you have to move. Then you might have a garage sale or sell some things online, but by then, a big part of it will be so undervalued (mobile phones that cost as much as 300 euros 2 years ago can be bought by 30 euros today) that it is not worth the trouble. You will throw most of them away, polluting the environment with all the silicon, lithium, plastic and a bunch of other crap that will take hundreds of thousands of years to decompose. Ok. Maybe I am being unfair. Maybe you are a pseudo-ecological person that takes your useless stuff to the next electronics’ recycling center. You know all the silicon, lithium and plastic are still there, right? People at these centers will separate the materials to facilitate recycling, a process which itself consumes energy and other resources. If you were really ecological, you would not have accumulated so many useless things in the first place.

My second disappointment is with the news itself, a narrow-minded article that makes a silly economical analysis of shops adhering or not to Black Friday and misses *entirely* the bigger and more important picture. I don’t mind BBC having a business section. I mind that a huge newscast corporation, responsible for shaping the opinions of millions of people, has an article saying how Christmas sales are affected by Black Friday and does *not* have an article discussing the more worrying consequences of such event. Consequences that will only be felt after a few years, on the climate, nature and society itself (if you think about it, 10 years ago is not that far and already so many things have changed), and not on next month’s profit. Why are these fundamental questions not worthy of a front page news? Do newspapers have an agenda? Or are they simply run by people that don’t care? Or is it too disturbing? I am sure there are competent people out there, thinking, researching and writing about the important things. Where are these people? Why are they not writing articles for the BBC? You really should…

About women harassment

It seems like I have to spell this out to you. So here we go.

Women street harassment is a thing. Women go out on the streets and they get harassed. I am sure no one will challenge this statement, right? Now, what most people (mostly men) don’t know is that harassment is not only rape, or calling someone names, or inappropriate touching. No no no… Harassment can come in several different flavors, sometimes even unintentionally. And this is the hard part because, since the harasser has nothing but good intentions, and did nothing wrong explicitly, you will be the feminist bitch to bring it up and be mad about it. Well, I am not a feminist bitch, I will just be honest because some things have got to stop.

Men think that it is ok to approach women they don’t know, talk, flirt and, if she seems receptive, ask them out. It sounds ok… if you are at a bar, or a party! But *not* if you are in the bus, or subway, or airplane, or hotel, or doctor’s office waiting room. You have no idea how annoying it is to realize that that person with whom you were having a perfectly harmless conversation has ulterior motives and was actually hitting on you. We start believing that people are never nice just for the sake of being nice, which means that, if you are nice back, you’d be receptive to his asking for your phone number in about 5 minutes. So what do we do? We stay serious, we don’t engage on any conversation, we look anywhere but other people’s faces. And it sucks, because suddenly you realize that you walk around with a constant angry face, you choose not to sit next to unknown guys, you pretend you don’t speak the language and hide the book you were reading, you don’t do *anything*, absolutely nothing!!, that can be a conversation starter (unfortunately we have to sneeze sometimes…). It is sad that all these self-preserving acts come naturally for most women. This means that, at one point or another, every one of us found ourselves in a weird situation with a guy, and it happened so often that the person who came to talk to you had an agenda, that we just stop listening, even to the poor people that have no agenda at all, and are actually just being nice.

So, men of the world, I am sure that you sometimes have the best of intentions. You’re both just sitting there doing nothing, so what’s the harm in talking? But before engaging, ask yourself this: if the person sitting next to you was another guy, would you ask him the time or comment on the weather? If the answer is no, it is better to keep your mouth shut.

Sobre corrupção

J√° que corrup√ß√£o √© o assunto do momento, eu acho que a gente devia come√ßar a esclarecer umas coisas. Eu andei lendo sobre o esquema da Petrobr√°s (a Folha tem um infogr√°fico explicativo muito did√°tico) e perguntando pra algumas pessoas que trabalham em empreiteiras pra saber direitinho como o esquema funciona. A gente tem que se informar, n√©? Tamb√©m li alguns estudos sobre corrup√ß√£o de acad√™micos da √°rea de gerenciamento e psicologia social [1]. Aqui v√£o minhas conclus√Ķes preliminares sobre o assunto.

Quando esses esc√Ęndalos de corrup√ß√£o ocorrem, a rea√ß√£o imediata das pessoas que est√£o “do lado de fora” √© de querer apontar os culpados, e puni-los por isso. A id√©ia por tr√°s disso √© que existe uma meia d√ļzia de pessoas mal intencionadas, gananciosas e mesquinhas que est√£o burlando o sistema para benef√≠cio pr√≥prio. Se livrar dessas pessoas, portanto, iria garantir que n√£o haver√° mais corrup√ß√£o. Muito pr√°tico, n√©? S√≥ que as coisas n√£o s√£o bem assim. Acho que a gente j√° est√° crescidinho o suficiente pra entender que n√£o tem dessa de pessoas boas e pessoas m√°s, vil√Ķes e mocinhos.

Atos corruptos n√£o s√£o cometidos por pessoas imorais ou com algum desvio de comportamento, mas por pessoas como eu e voc√™ (assumindo que voc√™ n√£o tem um desvio de comportamento…). Pessoas que v√£o colocar o filho de castigo se ele pegar alguma coisa do coleguinha da escola sem pedir, que v√£o achar um absurdo o prefeito daquela cidadezinha que desviou dinheiro pra comprar uma fazenda e que n√£o v√£o sair de um restaurante sem pagar. Ent√£o o que leva uma pessoa que tem bons valores morais a cometer atos de corrup√ß√£o? Pra mim, esse √© o cerne da quest√£o. Se entendermos direitinho como as pessoas s√£o levadas a cometer atos il√≠citos, temos uma chance de resolver o problema antes dele come√ßar, de prevenir ao inv√©s de remediar. N√≥s sabemos algumas coisinhas sobre isso j√°, felizmente.

A primeira coisa que devemos ter em mente √© o contexto. As pessoas tomam decis√Ķes em um determinado momento, com uma quantidade finita de informa√ß√£o e muitas vezes sob press√£o para atingir um objetivo imediato. As decis√Ķes s√£o tomadas sem muita reflex√£o, sem tempo para analisar a situa√ß√£o como um todo, o que torna tudo muito mais dif√≠cil. Naquele momento crucial de decidir se pagamos a propina ou n√£o, se contamos com uma venda ainda n√£o consolidada ou n√£o, se falamos pro cliente que aquela a√ß√£o vai absolutamente subir ou n√£o, pensamos numa escala pequena. Se n√£o quebrarmos “um pouquinho” a regra, talvez ficaremos sem emprego, talvez muitas pessoas ficar√£o sem emprego, talvez a empresa n√£o vai cumprir a meta… nesse momento, dadas as consequ√™ncias, quebrar “um pouquinho” a regra √© um mal necess√°rio. Mesmo que, no fundo, no fundo, voc√™ saiba que est√° fazendo algo ilegal. A gente tem uma coisa que chama auto-preserva√ß√£o psicol√≥gica, que protege o nosso ego e que nem sempre √© muito boa. Ela √© respon√°vel pela racionaliza√ß√£o de atos il√≠citos, aquele pensamento de que “foi a coisa certa a se fazer no momento”.

Podemos fazer um exerc√≠cio pra ver como isso tudo funciona. Vamos usar o esquema da Petrobr√°s que todo mundo j√° sabe direitinho como funciona a essa altura. Vamos nos colocar no lugar de cada uma das pessoas e ver como elas podem ter racionalizado suas a√ß√Ķes [2]:

– Jos√©, diretor da Petrobr√°s. Jos√© foi indicado pelo partido X para ser o novo diretor da Petrobr√°s. No momento da indica√ß√£o, ele ficou muito feliz e orgulhoso do bom trabalho que fez durante sua carreira para merecer uma diretoria t√£o importante. Ele comemorou com um churrasco com sua fam√≠lia e amigos do partido X. Ele foi alertado que ter√° que seguir “sugest√Ķes” do partido X de vez em quando, mas ele confia que seus amigos s√£o profissionais competentes e v√£o indicar boas empresas. Al√©m do mais, √© uma maneira de conseguir verba pro pr√≥prio partido que o ajudou a conseguir essa posi√ß√£o importante. Se n√£o for assim, a empresa nunca vai doar tanto dinheiro pra um partido, porque elas s√£o gananciosas e m√°s. E partidos precisam de dinheiro para campanhas. Jos√© pensa estar ajudando a todos.

РCarlos, amigo de José do partido X. Carlos apoiou a indicação de José pra diretoria da Petrobrás porque José é uma pessoa de confiança e competente. Carlos se preocupa em conseguir verba pro seu partido para eleger mais pessoas e aprovar projetos que ele concorda que serão bons pra sociedade. Como as empresas não vão doar tanto dinheiro pra campanhas políticas, Carlos pode usar a influência de José na contratação para obras na Petrobrás e forçar um pouquinho esse pagamento. Tudo pro bem da sociedade. O dinheiro não fará falta pras empresas.

– Eduardo, dono da empresa Y. Eduardo abriu sua empresa ainda jovem, e est√° orgulhoso de como ela cresceu. Decide entrar finalmente na concorr√™ncia pra uma obra importante com a Petrobr√°s. Durante uma reuni√£o, uma propina √© sutilmente sugerida e Eduardo acha um absurdo, a princ√≠pio. Depois de algumas licita√ß√Ķes perdidas, ele percebe que se n√£o pagar a propina como todas as outras empresas t√™m feito, nunca conseguir√° obras importantes. Um contrato com a Petrobr√°s √© realmente algo grande pra se ter no portif√≥lio da sua empresa. Eduardo faz as contas e v√™ que valer√° a pena pagar a propina nesse momento e que esse contrato pode abrir portas pra sua empresa. Eduardo entra no esquema.

Olhando assim, de pertinho, não parece que eles estão fazendo algo de muito errado. Olhando de longe, como estamos vendo nas notícias, tudo é um grande absurdo, uma roubalheira, imoral, e todos esses adjetivos. A lição que tiramos disso é que atos errados não parecem tão errados num nível micro. Se cada uma dessas pessoas tivesse uma noção do tamanho do esquema pro qual estão contribuindo, como estamos vendo hoje nas notícias, talvez tomariam uma decisão diferente. Mas elas não tem. Nem eu e nem você, se estivéssemos no lugar

Claro que meus personagens fict√≠cios s√£o s√≥ os personagens principais. Mas um esquema desse tamanho n√£o se faz com uma pessoa em uma empresa ou institui√ß√£o. √Č necess√°rio haver o apoio, ou pelo menos consentimento, de muitos e muitos outros. O que leva √† segunda coisa que sabemos sobre comportamento humano: comportamento de grupo e obedi√™ncia. Se voc√™ √© uma pessoa dentro de uma institui√ß√£o, e percebe que algo de errado est√° sendo feito, voc√™ tem duas op√ß√Ķes: aponta o erro e arrisca perder seu emprego ou fica calado e v√™ se algu√©m vai falar alguma coisa. Como a maioria das pessoas escolhe a segunda op√ß√£o, o sil√™ncio coletivo te faz pensar que talvez a coisa n√£o seja t√£o errada assim. E tudo passa a ser ok e voc√™ pensa “bom, ent√£o √© assim que as coisas funcionam por aqui, tudo bem”. E se tudo que voc√™ tem que fazer √© assinar um papel ou jogar uns n√ļmeros numa planilha ou fazer uma transfer√™ncia banc√°ria, a sua sensa√ß√£o de responsabilidade em um esquema de corrup√ß√£o √© perto de zero. Afinal de contas, voc√™ est√° apenas seguindo ordens. Na verdade, eu acho que a maioria de pessoas num esquema de corrup√ß√£o, sen√£o todas, n√£o pensam conscientemente que est√£o sendo corruptas ou fazendo algo errado (o que n√£o impede que elas paguem pelos seus atos, claro).

E a√≠? Como fazer pra prevenir essa situa√ß√£o? Ficou dif√≠cil agora n√©? Pois √©…
Com certeza existem pessoas trabalhando em coisas que podem ser aplicadas a essas situa√ß√Ķes. A gente tem que prestar aten√ß√£o, se informar, e juntar os dois mundos da teoria e da pr√°tica pra uma solu√ß√£o de verdade.

[1] A prop√≥sito, muito pouca coisa dispon√≠vel online… N√£o sei se √© por causa de direitos autorais ou se realmente existem poucos estudos sobre o assunto.

[2] A situação descrita é altamente hipotética e serve simplesmente como um exemplo exagerado para fins didáticos.

About corruption

Since corruption seems to be the hip topic, I thought it would be good to clarify a few things. I have been reading about the Petrobras scandal (Folha, a Brazilian newspaper, has a nice info-graphic about it, in Portuguese, sorry…) and asking a few people I know who work in companies to find out exactly how these schemes come about. We must inform ourselves, right? I also read a few papers about corruption from management and psychology academics [1]. Here’s my two cents on the subject.

When corruptions scandals erupt, “outside” people’s immediate reaction is to point the guilty ones, and punish them for that. The underlying idea is that there exists half a dozen of “bad apples”, who are greedy and evil and who cheat the system for their own benefit. Getting rid of these people would guarantee the end of corruption. Practical, right? But wrong. We are all grown ups, and we know very well that there is no such thing as the good guy and the bad guy.

Corrupt actions are not committed by immoral or unethical people, but by people like me and you (assuming you have a sense of moral and ethics…). People who will ground their kids for taking materials from school, that will be outraged by politicians’ money laundering and who will always pay their bills. So how come otherwise moral people end up so corrupt? For me this is the ultimate question. If we understand how people are led to commit illegal acts, we have a chance of solving the problem before it starts, preventing instead of treating. Fortunately, we know already a thing or two about that.

The first thing we should keep in mind is that it is all about context. At the point of the decision making, people have limited information and are usually under pressure to solve an immediate problem. Decisions are made without a lot of reflection, with no time to analyse the situation as a whole, which makes the matter that much harder. At that moment when we need to decide whether to bribe or not, to count with that sales or not, to sell a bad product to a client or not, we think small. If we don’t bend the rules just a little bit, maybe we’ll be without a job, maybe many people will be without jobs, maybe the company will not reach its goal… at that moment, given the consequences, bending the rules is a necessary evil. Even if, deep deep down, you know this is something illegal. We have a thing called psychological self-preservation that does wonders for that and protects our egos. It is responsible for our rationalization, at the time of the decision making and afterwards, that we made the right choice given the conditions.

We can try an exercise to see how this works. Let’s use the Petrobras scheme since it is in vogue. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of each player and think how they could have rationalized their actions [2]:

– Jose, Petrobras director. Jose was nominated by party X to be the new director of Petrobras. He was very happy and proud of himself and all his hard work that led him to be trusted with such an important position. He celebrated in a barbecue with his family and friends from party X. His friends warned him that he should follow some “suggestions” every now and then, but Jose trusts his friends and he knows they will suggest good companies for the job. On top of that, it’s a way for Jose to pay back to the party who nominated him, helping them get money for campaigns. If it weren’t like this, the companies would never give so much for electoral campaigns because they are greedy and evil. And political parties need the money. Jose is only helping.

– Carlos, friend of Jose and member of party X. Carlos supported the nomination of Jose for Petrobras’ board of directors because the former trusts the latter. Carlos is worried about getting funding for campaigns so that his party has more representatives in the government and can approve more laws which he deems are good for the people. Since companies do not donate a lot for electoral campaigns, he can use the influence of Jose when hiring them for Petrobras’ jobs to give it a little push. All for the good of society. The companies can surely afford it.

– Eduardo, owner of company Y. Eduardo opened his own company as a young entrepreneur and is very proud of how it has been growing. He decides to enter the competition to win a contract with Petrobras. During a meeting, there is a subtle mention of a bribe to get the contract and Eduardo is outraged at first. After losing all the contracts in a few years, he realises that the only way of getting in is accepting the bribe. A Petrobras contract is really something to have on your company’s portfolio. Eduardo does the math and see it will be worth it. Eduardo is in.

Looking so closely, it does not seem they are doing anything wrong. Looking from far, as we see today on the news, it is outrageous, unethical, immoral, and all the proper adjectives. What we learn from this is that wrong-doings might not look so wrong from up-close. If any of these people had an idea of the size of the scheme, as we are seeing it today, maybe they would make a different choice. But they didn’t. And neither would have me or you, if we were in their shoes.

Of course that my fictional characters are just the protagonists of the whole story. A scheme such as that does not maintain itself with only a handful of people in an organization. Many others must support, or at least consent with, the whole thing. This leads to the second thing we know about human behaviour: group loyalty and obedience. If you are a person inside an institution and you realise there is something wrong going on, you have basically two choices: speak up and risk your job or stay quiet and hope someone else will say something. Since most people choose the second option, the collective silence makes you think that  maybe it was not so wrong to begin with. Everything becomes ok and you just think “well, that’s how things are done around here then, very well”. And if all you have to do is sign a paper, put some numbers on a spreadsheet or transfer some money, your sense of responsibility in a great corruption scheme is minimal. After all, you are only following orders. Actually, my guess is that most people in those schemes, if not all, are not conscious of the fact that they are corrupt or doing something wrong (which should not keep them from being punished, or course).

Well… how to prevent this? The problem is much harder now, right? Yeah…
I am sure there are people working on things which could be applied to this situation. We need to pay attention, inform ourselves, and bring the worlds of theory and practice together for a solution.

[1] By the way, not many things available online… I don’t know if it is because of copyright issues or if there are not many studies about corruption.

[2] The described situation is highly hypothetical and serves the purpose of being an exaggerated example for making a point.

About confirmation bias

It’s been a long time since I don’t write here. The year has started with my new job and the many many paper deadlines. It has kept me busy enough not to follow the news a lot, which is generally a good thing, because seeing what is happening in the world is usually a source of depression and disappointment for me.

Nevertheless I am Brazilian, and the latest protests in the country could not have passed by unnoticed. Specially because my parents, the most apolitical people I know, participated on it.

But this will not be yet another text on the political situation in Brazil, no no. We have plenty of that. What is most interesting, for me at least, is to observe people and their reaction. Since the elections in November I realised how irrational this opinion business can get. People immersed in the situation do not seem to realize it, but they do get really closed-minded and irrational when they decide on an opinion, no matter how rational they think their opinion might be. Everybody thinks “I cannot believe they can’t see it clearly like I do!”. But there is the paradox right there: *everybody* thinks that, no matter how different their “clear” thoughts are. And since a discussion between irrationals is a lot of work, they group together with people of the same opinion. They refuse to see (or listen, or try to understand) the “others”, and suddenly everyone around them agree, which makes them think they are even “more right”. That is the pitfall…

This phenomenon is crystal clear on social networks. There are extremist posts pro-government, with many likes and supportive comments. There are also extremist posts against government, with many likes and supportive comments. Why don’t these people talk? I am sure they are all intelligent and reasonable, and they can both find the strong and weak points of each side (or a third and better side). But they just don’t. On a failed attempt to make two opposing party relatives talk during the elections last year, I ended up as being the one bringing adversity, trying to turn them against each other. I honestly just wanted to see the beliefs questioned and put to test. (Something at which political debates failed horribly).

Confirmation bias is a real thing, but it’s a shame to see it preventing a discussion which could be otherwise very fruitful and informative.