Friday, October 12, 2007

Does Harsh Punishment Lead to a Cover-Up?

I was driving around DC a few days ago, in a bit of a hurry but still enjoying the drive. I'm singing with the windows down, to my favorite song of the week, and in that split second where everything feels perfect, I make a wrong turn.

In most circumstances, it would be no problem and I'd just turn around. But if you've ever driven in DC (or Boston), you understand the panic that hits when you make a wrong turn. The DC traffic patterns are very unforgiving in their punishment. One wrong turn and there's no telling where you'll end up - maybe in traffic, maybe on a bridge to MD/DC/VA, or taking a 30 minute detour to backtrack. Poor signage, convoluted patterns, and roundabouts with 9 or 10 spokes definitely compound the problem (check out Dupont Circle).

AFTER I made my wrong turn, I found myself near the Kennedy Center with 2 lanes of traffic in each direction, quickly approaching an on-ramp. I start to get nervous because I have no idea where this on-ramp would lead me, but I knew that it would be trouble because nothing is easy when driving in DC.

I started thinking about the similarities between the DC traffic system and a harsh disciplinarian. You know you'll get punished and you know it won't be fun, so you do everything you can to avoid making a mistake or getting caught.

To avoid being subjected to the strict punishment of "the system", I blatantly disregard the NO U-TURN signs plastered around the area (maybe this is a common problem?!?) and dangerously screech across traffic with my Rav-4 and head back in the opposite direction.

There was no easy way to get back to where I had been (again, poor design), so I quickly determine that I have to pull off another (somewhat dangerous) illegal U-turn. There were more NO U-TURN signs here (go figure!), but I couldn't bear the potential for unreasonable and unknown punishment of being lost, late, stuck in traffic, and even more frustrated.

In retrospect, I don't think I would have done it if I didn't feel that the system was unreasonably harsh in its punishment. Is this similar to the white lie "cover-ups" I did in high school to avoid the wrath of my mother? Is this the same feeling CEOs have when they inflate earnings or when politicians get involved in some scandal?

It seems like when a mistake is made, we're so afraid of the punishment that we find another alternative that's crazier or riskier in hopes that we'll be able to avert the retribution. That usually leads to bigger problems but when we get away with it, it only encourages us to subvert the system again (i.e. continue to to U-turns).

In terms of DC traffic, I think there would be fewer accidents if L'Enfant had made a more straightforward layout (and hadn't tried to copy Paris), because certainly fewer people would have that panic U-turn as they approach the "on-ramp to nowhere".

I wonder if there were an "easier out" in the corporate/political world, or if the stakes weren't so high, would more wrongdoing be addressed before it escalated to be such a huge issue? I also wonder whether kids with less-strict parents are less likely to do crazy things to cover up their wrongdoing. I'm sure many parents have had to figure out the balance of being strict enough to be respected, but approachable enough when things go wrong.

I think maybe the DC streets are too far gone, but it's an interesting idea to keep in mind when designing new systems or entering parenthood!
  • Does the thought of harsh punishment lead us to avoid it at any cost?

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