TED Radio Hour: Barry Schwartz: How Do Rules Fail Us? Psychologist Barry Schwartz makes a passionate call for practical wisdom as an antidote to a society gone mad with bureaucracy. He argues powerfully that rules often fail us, incentives often backfire, and practical, everyday wisdom will help rebuild our world.

Barry Schwartz: How Do Rules Fail Us?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. Today on the program, we're talking about fixing our broken systems. Our next guest comes at this problem in a unique way.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: My name is Barry Schwartz. I'm a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College.

STEWART: Barry starts his 2009 TED Talk not with any big sweeping reforms for health care or the financial system, but by listing the duties of a hospital janitor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Make beds and change linen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Collect and transport waste materials.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mop floors and stairways.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Picking up paper or trash.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Clean patient bedside equipment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Maintain entrance area.

SCHWARTZ: All of the items on it are unremarkable. They're the things you would expect.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Stock restroom supplies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Operate mechanical cleaning and scrubbing equipment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Maintain entrance area by performing such duties as sweeping...

SCHWARTZ: It may be a little surprising how many things there are, but it's not surprising what they are.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Move and arrange furniture.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Clean up spilled liquid or food.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Clean toilets, rooms and fixtures.

SCHWARTZ: But the one thing I want you to notice about them is this: Even though this is a very long list, there isn't a single thing on it that involves other human beings. Not one. The janitor's job could just as well be done in a mortuary as in a hospital.

STEWART: We'll talk with Barry in just a bit. But first, let's return to his TED Talk.


SCHWARTZ: And yet, when some psychologists interviewed hospital janitors to get a sense of what they thought their jobs were like, they encountered Mike, who told them about how he stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones was out of his bed, getting a little exercise, trying to build up his strength, walking slowly up and down the hall.

And Charlene told them about how she ignored her supervisor's admonition and didn't vacuum the visitors' lounge because there were some family members who were there all day, every day who at this moment happened to be taking a nap.

And then there was Luke, who washed the floor in a comatose young man's room twice, because the man's father, who had been keeping a vigil for six months, didn't see Luke do it the first time and his father was angry.

And behavior like this from janitors, from technicians, from nurses and, if we're lucky every now and then, from doctors, doesn't just make people feel a little better, it actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well.

Now, not all janitors are like this, of course. But the ones who are, think that these sorts of human interactions involving kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of the job. And yet their job description contains not one word about other human beings.

These janitors have the moral will to do right by other people. And, beyond this, they have the moral skill to figure out what doing right means.

STEWART: Barry, thanks for being on the TED RADIO HOUR.

SCHWARTZ: It's a thrill to be with you.

STEWART: Barry, you were proposing what the world needs now is a little wisdom. Which means you believe there's a lack of wisdom on some level. How did you come to that conclusion?

SCHWARTZ: My collaborator, Ken Sharp and I, very much went to school on the work of the ancient philosopher Aristotle, who talked about the kinds of virtues that it takes to lead a good human life. And the virtue that he identified as the central virtue is what he called practical wisdom. And what that was, was being able to figure out the right thing to do in each situation. And the reason that it was practical is that different situations call for different behavior.

And so you'll agree that it's a good rule for us to carry around: always be honest, always tell the truth. That is a good rule. But there are times when it's a disaster to tell the truth and what you ought to do is find a way to shade the truth or even out-and-out deceive as an act of kindness to the person you're talking to.

And wise people can recognize what the people they're dealing with need and adjust what they do so that they meet the needs of the particular person and the particular situation. And, yes, we think every activity that we engage in that involves other human beings requires wisdom.

STEWART: Well, let's hear a little bit more about wisdom from your TED Talk.


SCHWARTZ: A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore their job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed the floor. Real world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician; using the notes on a page but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand.

A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims: to serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you're serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, to try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

When you ask the janitors who behave like the ones I described how hard it is to learn to do their jobs, they tell you that it takes lots of experience, and they don't mean it takes lots of experience to learn how to mop floors and empty trash cans. It takes lots of experience to learn how to care for people.

STEWART: Is practical wisdom something that our culture had and lost?

SCHWARTZ: I think it's something that our culture had more of...


SCHWARTZ: ...and lost. And the reason why is that, when things are broken in modern society, when things aren't working right, we reach for two tools to try to fix them. One tool is we give people more rules to follow and we look over their shoulders to make sure they're following the rules. The second tool is we come up with incentives that will get people to do the right thing out of their own self-interest, whether or not they care about the welfare of the people they're dealing with.

What I think is true is that rules and incentives kill wisdom. The more you rely on rules and incentives, the less opportunity people have to develop wisdom and to - to want to be wise. So yes, we have less of it than we used to.

STEWART: You give an interesting example of how rules can create more chaos than order. Let's hear that.


SCHWARTZ: The good news is that you don't need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that, without wisdom, brilliance isn't enough. It's as likely to get you into trouble - and other people into trouble as anything else.


Now, I hope that we all know this. There's a sense in which it's obvious. And yet let me tell you a little story. It's a story about lemonade. A dad and his 11-year-old son were watching a Detroit Tigers game at the ballpark. His son asked him for some lemonade and dad went to the concession stand to buy it. All they had was Mike's Hard Lemonade, which was 5 percent alcohol.

Dad, being an academic, had no idea that Mike's Hard Lemonade was - contained alcohol, so he brought it back. And the kid was drinking it and a security guard spotted it and called the police, who called an ambulance. They rushed to the ballpark, whisked the kid to the hospital. The emergency room ascertained that the kid had no alcohol in his blood - whew! - and they were ready to let the kid go. But not so fast.

The Wayne County Child Welfare Protective Agency said no. And the child was sent to a foster home for three days. At that point, can the child go home? Well, a judge said yes, but only if the dad leaves the house and checks into a motel.

After two weeks, I'm happy to report, the family was reunited. But the welfare workers and the ambulance people and the judge all said the same thing: We hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.

STEWART: You can understand why, when the judge and everyone said this - we're following procedure, we had to do it. But they also, interestingly said, we hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure...


STEWART: ...the procedures are there truly to protect children. So what actually went wrong in this particular case?

SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, when they said we had to do it, did they really have to do it? I don't know. They clearly thought they had to do it, so what that meant is that their perception of their job is that somebody was looking over their shoulders, looking microscopically at everything they did, and that they would be punished in some way if they failed to follow the rules, to follow the script. And they realized that this was a case where the script made no sense, but they felt powerless to resist the script.

You see this with schoolteachers, too. They literally follow a script and you rip the discretion and judgment out of their hands, because you don't trust the teachers to have good judgment. And what's happening is that the school teaching profession has never been - had lower morale than it does now.


SCHWARTZ: Here's an example from Chicago kindergarten: Reading and enjoying literature and words that begin with B. The bath. Assemble students on a rug. Give students a warning about the dangers of hot water. Say 75 items in this script to teach a 25-page picture book, all over Chicago, in every kindergarten class in the city. Every teacher is saying the same words, in the same way, on the same day.

We know why these scripts are there. We don't trust the judgment of teachers enough to let them loose on their own. Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster and they prevent disaster. But what they assure in its place is mediocrity.

STEWART: Are you suggesting a rule-free utopia, Barry?

SCHWARTZ: No. No, no, no. I think rule - you need rules, but I think rules are like a road map that gets you to the right city but not the right street. So rules sort of establish the ballpark within which you operate and then you know, we all know, we say it all the time, there's an exception to every rule.

So if we use rules as guides and then are alert to whether we're now in a situation that requires - that's an exception and we act on that, then we deviate from the rules, when that's what's called for. So no, I think throwing out rules, that's a nightmare, that's a disaster. But this notion that you have to slavishly follow rules is also a disaster.

STEWART: You spoke a bit about incentives in your TED Talk. Tell me the difference between a good incentive and a bad incentive.

SCHWARTZ: Well, mostly I'd say incentives are bad. But every time we introduce an incentive, we are delivering an implicit message: You can't trust this person. This person wouldn't do the right thing, except that we're paying him to. So it fosters mistrust. The very reliance on incentives and on rules tells people you can't trust the banker, you can't trust the doctor, you can't trust the teacher. Defend yourself, guard against the worst.

And that really erodes the - this key ingredient, this sense that we're both in this together, we both have the same objectives. That makes for - that gives people permission to try to practice wisely.

STEWART: In your TED Talk, you say that we ought to re-moralize work. Maybe we can listen to a little bit of that.


SCHWARTZ: It is obvious that this is not the way that people want to do their work. So what can we do? A few sources of hope. We ought to try to re-moralize work. One way not to do it: teach more ethics courses.


There is no better way to show people that you're not serious than to tie up everything you have to say about ethics into a little package with a bow and consign it to the margins as an ethics course.

What to do instead? One, celebrate moral exemplars. Acknowledge, when you go to law school, that a little voice is whispering in your ear about Atticus Finch. No 10-year-old goes to law school to do mergers and acquisitions. People are inspired by moral heroes, but we learn that with sophistication comes the understanding that you can't acknowledge that you have moral heroes.

Well, acknowledge them, be proud that you have them, celebrate them and demand that the people who teach you acknowledge and celebrate them too.

STEWART: You talk a lot about what's called modeling - having really good people mentor people in business and in schools and in all walks of life, all kinds of professions.


STEWART: And, as I heard your talk, I thought you know what? Barry's talking about leadership. Is improving the system dependent upon choosing better leaders?

SCHWARTZ: Well, it certainly is dependent on choosing better leaders, but the critical question here is who decides what's better? And I think that we're focused on the wrong things. A better leader is somebody who gets more out of the people he or she leads than a worse one, right? It's all about efficiency, it's all about productivity. It's not about setting moral examples.

I'm telling you, I think that if you asked a banker, was that the right thing to do? He'd look at you like you had just descended from Mars. What does that even mean, was it the right thing to do? Do you mean did it maximize the profit that we made? Did it maximize my commission? What do you mean, was it the right thing to do? That language is simply absent from the workplace.

STEWART: When you were giving your TED Talk - I want you to be honest about this - you're...


STEWART: ...giving your TED Talk and you know who's in the audience...


STEWART: ...at TED. Were you hoping to reach some of the CEOs sitting there?

SCHWARTZ: So, I'll be completely honest. I was worried when I got up there that they would boo me off the stage. I mean, they're polite, so they wouldn't boo me off the stage. So I thought they would listen politely, clap politely and then sort of, you know, their eyes would get big at the next gee-whiz talk.

I got instead this overwhelming reaction. And I think the reason is that there is a hunger among people who have all kinds of talent and opportunity, to be able to feel, at the end of each day, that somebody's life is better as a result of what they did. And that's what I was appealing to, that this should be the center, the organizing principle of everybody's work. And that we give people the tools to - that enable them actually to do that.

STEWART: The opportunity to do well and do good.

SCHWARTZ: When you do good, you will end up doing better financially. It's not an act of self-sacrifice at all, to treat people wisely. It is actually in your self-interest. It will make your work more meaningful. It'll make your social relations better. So people benefit enormously if they can bring wisdom to the interactions they have with the people they serve and with the people who are important in their personal lives.

STEWART: Barry, let's hear the last part of your TED Talk.


SCHWARTZ: The single most important thing kids need to learn is character. They need to learn to respect themselves. They need to learn to respect their schoolmates. They need to learn to respect their teachers. And, most important, they need to learn to respect learning. That's the principal objective. If you do that, the rest is just pretty much a coast downhill.

And the teachers, the way you teach these things to kids is by having the teachers and all the other staff embody it every minute of every day. And the virtue that we need above all others, I think, is practical wisdom because it's what allows other virtues - honesty, kindness, courage and so on - to be displayed at the right time and in the right way.

I think there is reason for hope. I think people want to be allowed to be virtuous, wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one of us, if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it and, perhaps most importantly, to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us, and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed. Thank you very much.

STEWART: Barry Schwartz, thanks for being on the TED RADIO HOUR.

SCHWARTZ: My pleasure.

STEWART: Barry Schwartz. He's a psychology professor at Swarthmore College. You can find links to more TED Talks by Barry on our website. Go to ted.npr.org. And you can watch hundreds more TED Talks. Go to ted.com.

I'm Alison Stewart. You've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

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