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Published since 1930
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January 1930 (c)
Way back in grade school one of my favorite teachers made what I considered—and still do, even more strongly—a really big pedagogical mistake. We had been working on short division with remainders, like 7 (divided by) 2 = 3, R 1. I breezed through a set of such problems till I came to the one at the end: 1 (divided by) 2. I found out later that I was expected to write 0, R 1, but that never entered my head. I had never before seen a division problem in which the divisor was bigger than the dividend, and I saw it as something fundamentally different. I thought long and hard about what it meant, and finally wrote down 1/2. Imagine my chagrin when she marked it wrong and said, “We'll teach you about fractions next year."
Did nobody teach her to recognize a huge leap and supremely teachable moment when she saw one? In case you're wondering, yes, I did understand what I was saying. I had a solid grasp of the idea that if I had seven candy bars to share with two friends we could each take two and have one left over. It was just as clear to me that if I had one candy bar and had to share it equally with my brother, I would have to break it into two equal pieces. I knew that those pieces were called halves, and I had seen “one half” written as “1/2.” What I had just done was to make, on my own, the connection between that and the formal process of division. It was a major conceptual breakthrough, and my teacher (in my now-professional opinion as a teacher myself) should have found that exciting and looked for a way to run with it.
I could understand if she had said, “That's very good, and we'll teach you more about things like this next year.” But she was just plain
to tell me I was wrong, and that bothered me a lot—perhaps more than it should have. I approved highly of most of what she did, so this isolated
disturbed me more than it would have if I'd already written her off as a lousy teacher. It doesn't seem fair that we hold mistakes more strongly against people who don't make many—but we often do.
I would certainly never devote an editorial to complaining about something a long-ago teacher did, but I realized in much-delayed retrospect that my
to what she did was a small-scale example of what seems to be a fairly general principle of human nature; and that's what I'm writing about. It seems that our evaluation of other people's behavior is not based on a simple comparison of what they do to what they “should” do in some objective sense, but more on a comparison of what they do to what we expect of them, personally, on the basis of past experience. This has the odd effect—the one I described above as “unfair"—that we'll judge exactly the same action much more harshly if it's done by somebody we know and admire than if it's done by a stranger or someone we already regard as incompetent or unscrupulous. We'll shrug off a lie or theft or drunkenness by somebody who already has a history of that kind of behavior, with an attitude of, “What else would you expect?” But if one of your personal heroes does exactly the same thing, you'll probably be horrified.
Why is that unfair? Well, if we were going to judge all actions in an impartial way, by their consequences, those are exactly the same regardless of who does the deed. So if hero A and scoundrel B do the same bad thing, it's really just one small defect in A's long and otherwise unblemished record, and our overall judgment of A still looks quite good—just not perfect. For B, it's just another data point to reinforce our already low opinion of his character.
But that's not the way it often works. For B, we say it's
another data point and attach little significance to it. For A, we often act, at least for a while, as if that one blemish has wiped out all the earlier examples of merit.
We might call this effect the “halo handicap": a person who is seen as too virtuous is likely to suffer much more for even a small isolated misstep than someone who is already perceived as prone to big ones. The reason seems to be that people become used to getting what they want from a particular source so much of the time that they expect it
the time, and get seriously bent out of shape when that doesn't happen.
That kind of thinking—or feeling—doesn't just color our attitudes toward individuals, but toward companies, other institutions, and even whole civilizations.
And it can have destructive consequences.
For a corporate-level example, consider the recent troubles of the Toyota company. What has actually happened here? There have been, in a short recent period, a couple of recalls for problems with sticking accelerators and brakes, promptly followed by such media coverage as
magazine's cover line reading, “Toyota: The Fall of an Icon,” to draw readers’ attention to an article further blurbed with, “It was the world's most admired automaker . . . What can other firms learn from a corporate culture that went horribly wrong?"
Far be it from me to suggest that sticky-accelerator and brake problems are not to be taken seriously. They can injure and even kill people, and there is some evidence that these have, in at least a few cases. Certainly Toyota needs to find out what went wrong and correct it, and they're working on that. Some have suggested that they're not correcting it as effectively as they could, and even that may be true.
But let's put things in perspective. “Fall of an icon” and “went horribly wrong” suggest, rather sensationally, that it's all over for Toyota and a once-excellent company has suddenly become a terrible company no longer worthy of any trust. A better statement of the facts as I understand them (in February) would be that a company long known for making hardly any mistakes has finally made a couple. Most other companies in the same business have made so many comparable ones that had they made these, the news stories about them would have been headed, far less prominently, “More recalls from Motors; details on p. 6."
In case any of you have no personal experience with Toyotas, let me illustrate with my own. My wife and I have, as of this writing, owned three Toyotas (all bought used) for a total of 22 vehicle-years. I will now recite their complete combined record of repairs (as distinct from routine preventive maintenance or body work necessitated by falling trees and the like):
Replaced one muffler clamp to prevent muffler from dragging.
Replaced one exhaust flex coupling to keep a barely noticeable noise from getting worse.
By comparison, every one of the numerous other cars we've owned or habitually driven has needed at least a couple of significant mechanical or electrical repairs—ranging from distributor caps and washer motors to a transmission rebuild—every year. That pattern was so typical of not only our experience but also many people's that most of the car owners I've known considered it par for the course. So you can see that, at least in our experience, Toyota reliability is not just enough better than most of the competition that you can see it if you look closely at the statistics, it's so qualitatively obvious as to be in a totally different league.
So Toyota owners, having been lulled into thinking they can expect something very close to perfection, think they should be able to count on it absolutely all the time—which is neither realistic nor, in my earlier word, fair.
Please note carefully that I'm not saying that I think Toyota can do no wrong. Clearly they did do something wrong in these two cases*, and I'll be as disappointed as anybody—maybe more so, since I'd like to keep being able to get cars as reliable as the ones I've gotten from them so far—if these occurrences turn out to be the beginning of a real slide in standards. That's a real possibility; the current recession has led many (if not most) companies to cut corners, and I know no reason to assume that this one is immune to the temptation. I'll be watching carefully to see how things develop. After all, the next time I need to buy a car (which I don't expect to be soon) I'll probably go back to this company if it still seems the most likely source of the reliability I want. And I won't if it doesn't.
But in the meantime, I think it's seriously premature to think that two recalls, or even some glitches in dealing with them, prove that the company has abandoned its dedication to quality or lost its ability to deliver it. All two close-together data points prove is that a company that has long been far above its competitors is not quite as far above them as some people liked to believe. It, too, can make mistakes; maybe it was overdue for some. But unless and until more data points have accumulated that define a real downward curve, nothing more can be reasonably concluded.
But if customers panic and abandon them without waiting to see whether that happens, they may have trouble restoring and maintaining their accustomed reliability.
The same considerations apply, with new variations, at the level of whole civilizations. Our own culture, despite its members’ incessant complaining about a wide variety of concerns, has come to take for granted such a high standard of safety and comfort that many of us find it increasingly hard to imagine making do with anything less and are inclined to become frantic at the slightest deviation from what we expect. In discussions of water conservation, for example, nobody ever makes the obvious suggestion that people take showers every two or three days instead of every day. And I've heard people seriously suggest that space missions should not be undertaken until they can be made perfectly safe.