Punishing the Good to Spite the Bad

punishing the good to spite the bad

We like to make sure that people don’t cheat or game the system so much that we find ourselves punishing the good to spite the bad. Are we going too far?

Aussies and Kiwis

In Australia and New Zealand there is a cultural phenomenon of “cutting down the tall poppy”. The idea is simple: if some seem to feel too highly of themselves, it’s nearly a duty to cut them down to size. The idea is to not only keep people humble but also keep things fairly even by not letting some outpace others.

This idea is similar to the results one can see in a series of experiments revolving around an economics experiment that demonstrates punishing the good to spite the bad.

The Public Goods Game

The public goods game gives players a number of tokens. During each turn the participants privately contribute to a public pot. “Interest” is added to the pot based on how much was in the pot. The entire pot is then equally distributed to the players.

The problem is, as you can see from the diagram, if someone withholds money, they actually will end up with more money, whereas everyone else might lose money.

public goods game

For this reason, in variations of the game where people have means to punish non-contributors, they will typically do so even when it costs them.

The reason for this makes sense: when people don’t act in the common good, they are profiting off of others. The person in the diagram above contributed nothing, but ended up with the most money, basically taking from the others to enrich themselves. Living in a community requires working together; taking advantage of others shows selfishness when empathy is required.

But have we taken something that helps maintain a proper balance and taken it too far? Are we punishing the good to spite the bad.

Somebody Mixed My Medicine

I take a medication that’s on auto refill. It’s a daily tablet with 90 to a container. As the container gets lower and lower, I wonder when I will get the auto refill notice. Finally, when it seems there’s just a couple tablets dinging around in the bottle, I get a notification that my refill is ready.

Now it’s actually more like a week’s worth, but it begs the question. Why a week? What if I accidentally dropped one or two down the sink? What if I’m traveling for a couple weeks?

Tightening the Belt

It’s the same with my health insurance. I get one well visit to the doctor a year that I don’t have to pay for. That’s not one every 11 months, or even 11 and 1/2 months or even 11 months and 29 days. It’s one a year. That means every year that date slides down the calendar. What started in June is now in August.

Why? Because these companies are punishing the good to spite the bad. They worry that if they give a refill too early someone might sell it or if they let people see their doctor on the same day every year, people might take advantage. They make it harder and harder each year. 

10 years ago if needed to go to the doctor, I went and paid $20. Done. Now I can only go once a year. If I need to go again, I pay the entirety of the bill until my $1,000 deductible is paid. If on my yearly visit I get any test out of the norm, no matter if the doctor thinks it’s necessary or not, I pay. 

We’ve become so concerned with people taking advantage, we’ve become more focused on the few people who take advantage than the majority who are legitimately in need.

The Gall of Frozen Food

In 2011, a pundit was blasted for their outrage that 99.6% of “poor” households had refrigerators. As the economy was booming and everything was going well, they wanted to highlight how people who were receiving public funds were gaming the system.

But shouldn’t everyone have a refrigerator? Sure it’s a near $1,000 item depending on which one you get, but looking at it like that is so short-sighted.

It’s $1,000 for probably 10 years or $100 a year or $8 a month. The other option is to have to go to the grocery store nearly every day. If a family is trying to earn money, how does taking an hour every day contribute to their earning potential? Isn’t $8 a month a sound investment to gain 15 or more hours a month?

Not only did the pundit not see the problem, they were obviously not doing the math. They were too busy focusing on punishing the good to spite the bad.

Food Stamps on Phones

It’s a lot like a meme I saw on Facebook the other day: 

America: The only country where people check their food stamp balance on an $800 smartphone.

This sounds bad, but is it? Again, that’s not $800 a month, but $800 every 3 years or less than $35 a month. This in turn makes it easier for the government to track and the stores to use. No mailings of stamps to send, no replacements to mail, no stamps to keep track of at the store, and no collection centers to staff, count, and send checks from. The fact that the person has a smartphone helps the government and the stores.

In addition, this is a computer. In a lot of instances – the only computer a person has. And it’s a phone. And it’s a device that helps them keep track of their kids, use apps for their school, apply for jobs, etc.

But when we see the $800 phone, we get angry. We are ready to start punishing the good to spite the bad. Maybe there’s a better approach.

A Better Approach

In the public goods game, it’s not the poor that take advantage, but the rich. In life we have a need to keep people who exploit in check. Unfortunately we’ve transferred that need from those who make their money getting rich off of others to those who are just trying to survive. We’ve gotten way off the mark.

Instead of punishing everyone for a few bad apples, we need to realize that more people are good and trying their best than are bad and trying to game the system. We need to have checks in place to be sure, but we need to not immediately assume the worst, particularly of those who are in desperate need. We get more bent out of shape from one person who cheats the system for a $1,000 than for entire enterprises that require billions in bailouts.

We need to realize that most people are going to be good. We need to believe the best and find ways to maximize doing good to our fellow man. We need to stop punishing the good to spite the bad. We need to start finding the good and focusing on how we can make it better.

David Bishop

David is CEO of Cedowin Productions, dedicated to helping you live your best life through positive habits. He has inspired tens of thousands to improve habits and communication through books, articles, workshops, and apps. He is the creator of AweVenture, helping families enjoy fantastic, active experiences and Zombie Goals, literally making building healthy habits a game. He’s authored several books including How to Create Amazing Presentations, 7 Steps to Better Relationships, and The Man in the Pit, which helps people who have loved ones struggling with depression.

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