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it hurts when you ignore me

November 15, 2011

A young woman being excluded by her friends

ostracism |ˈästrəˌsizəm|
1 exclusion from a society or group: the family suffered social ostracism.
2 (in ancient Greece) temporary banishment from a city by popular vote.

I gave a presentation recently to the Australian Tax office titled “Serious Play” that explored what games might have to offer today’s workplace. In it I put forward the view that what is missing in much of what passes for ethics training today is the opportunity to explore new behaviours in a space where the cost of failure doesn’t prevent the exploration.

It is not as easy as that though. The cost of failure has to be high enough so that it drives us to exhibit behaviours that we can reflect on later. In the presentation I put it this way:

If you don’t have a stake in the game …
then you have nothing to lose and
nothing to gain and
no motivation to learn!

You see I have been spending a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of why the Samurai Game ® offers such an intense and powerful experience to participants. At the simplest level it could be described as a group of people getting together to pretend to be Samurai. Instead of fighting to the death with swords they engage in more simple (and safer) battles like rock-paper-scissors.

But of course there is more to it than that (you will have to take part to find out just how much more!).

We invite you to participate in accordance with a set of values – honesty, integrity, courage, respect, honour. Easy enough to do in a game surely? You can be completely honest for an hour or two can’t you? I mean it not as if anybody’s life depends on it…

If you break the rules (or lose at a simple game like rock-paper-scissors) the result is effectively that you get to sit out of the game.

So what?

Then why is it that I have never seen a game where most of the participants don’t … well … bend the rules? The answer I think is wrapped up in the concept of ostracism.

In the January edition of Scientific American Mind, Professor Kip Williams published an article titled ‘The Pain of Exclusion’ that really got me thinking. In it he presents evidence that shows that we literally feel the pain of ostracism:

Even brief episodes of ostracism involving strangers or people we dislike activate the brain’s pain centers, incite sadness and anger, increase stress, lower self-esteem and rob us of a sense of control.

When we experience ostracism we experience pain.

I shared this story with a participant in a recent game and they recalled an episode when friends from their dorm had pretended they did not exist. For an hour or so they were ignored, spoken of as if they were not present, walked over.

The response it triggered was almost primal.

And that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. To experience exclusion is to lose the protection of the tribe, to lose access to shelter, and potentially to food and water. Our response to ostracism is hard-wired within us to keep us alive.

So much so, says Kip Williams, that even if we know that a computer is programmed to ostracize us (or people we dislike do the same) we will still feel the pain and we will take action to avoid further pain.

And that is where most ethics training fails.

Case studies or on-line training tools only provide us with the motivation to answer the questions “correctly”. There is no pain!

The cost of failure is low and as a result so is the motivation to learn. The chance that it will change behaviour is even lower.

People need the chance to try – and to fail. The chance to move from “what would I do?” to “what did I do?”. It is only when the cost of failure is high enough to cause us to consider the clear bright line of a rule or prohibition as something more like a fuzzy grey spectrum that we have the opportunity to act and then reflect.

That is the opportunity I think the Samurai Game ® provides to each participant and one of the ways it does so is through the simple mechanism of causing you to feel excluded from the game. Even the threat of exclusion is enough.

The other members of your group (even the ones you dislike) get to continuing playing but you do not.

It hurts when you ignore me and that is enough it seems to get most people to bend the rules. That provides the opportunity to reflect on why it was that what we did do did not quite match up with what we said we would.

Simple. Elegant in design. Powerful beyond measure.

If your ethics training isn’t delivering the change in behaviour you are looking for then maybe it is time to cause a little pain?


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