Professional Oaths

Tuesday, April 27th, 02010 at 12:21 UTC

I’m sure we’ve all looked back at some of our own work and realized that we cut some corners here and there due to being rushed, lousy client requests, time and stress. There are innumerable reasons why our work may suffer. An amateur doesn’t understand why this is a problem, but a professional knows that it is a time bomb just waiting to explode. You might not be responsible, but when it goes off you have to fix it!

The following is an idea which may or may not be a good, but I’ll float it here for some potential reactions. It can apply to any industry, just replace professional titles as necessary.

In Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, he mentions an experiment in which there was a control group of students who took a short test and a second group who were allowed to cheat. The experiment was run a second time, but this time, before the test began half the group was asked to recall 10 books they read during high school and the other half was asked to recall the Ten Commandments. On average, the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments didn’t cheat even given the opportunity.

Being a good scientist, he didn’t directly attribute the lack of cheating to any religious virtues. Another test was needed to see if he could attribute the same effect with a different type of mental recall. For hundreds of years, guilds and professional organizations have been drafting and recalling oaths. Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath, lawyers have oaths and so do secret organizations. All of these are meant to affirm something publicly. If you are a doctor, then people know you have pledged the oath. Dan Ariely wondered if this sort of behavior would influence cheating in the same way that the Ten Commandments did.

He repeated the experiment with a control group, a group allowed to cheat and a third group that was also given the opportunity to cheat, but before beginning read and signed a short form that said “I understand that this study falls under the MIT honor system.” Amazingly, the results of this third group were the same as the group that had recalled the Ten Commandments and the group who was not allowed to cheat.

The two interesting outcomes of this experiment were that given the opportunity to cheat, people don’t as much as they could and secondly, recalling something about being honest before taking the test reduces cheating.

In another book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, it discusses the darker side of signing your name to an oath. During the Korean War, POWs who were captured by the Chinese were brainwashed. This was the 01950s and the term brainwash did not yet exist. These were really the first instances of psychological manipulation.

It was a fascinating psychological experiment that sometimes went even better than expected.The Chinese would simply ask the POWs to write some “harmless” statements about Communism or China. By writing down words, it slowly and subconsciously converted the POWs over to Communism. For those who didn’t want to write their own answers, there was a notebook that they could simply copy from. There is all sorts of research into these types of psychological tricks. Even if you know it’s false and that the author was not writing it because they believed in it, it still has a psychological impact on others to believe it more.

To further capitalize on this, the Chinese would have writing competitions where there were small prizes. Had the prizes been large, then POWs could fall back and say that they wrote it just for the payout, but because the prizes were significant enough to want to win, but not huge, such as fruit or cigarettes, the POWs took part willingly. Then a winner would be announced, not based on the best pro-Chinese rhetoric, but rather based on other factors. Like letting key influences win, or someone who was very patriotic, yet also had some pro-communist mentions. Sometimes the winning submissions were read aloud. This had several consequences, but mainly if you knew the author personally and they were writing pro-communist letters, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. It it was ‘vetted’ by people you know and trust, could it really be that bad? If someone you trust, trusts this ideology, then by the transitive property, then you too should trust it too.

Along those same lines, the Chinese captors would allow the POWs to send letters home, but they were highly redacted or never sent if the contents weren’t inline with the communist ideals. POWs quickly learnt this and would write letters home praising their captors and making pro-communist remarks. The POWs thought this would help get their letter through without realizing the damage they were doing to themselves psychologically. It was an unintended side-effect of the writing campaigns that POWs willing began to engage in this writing style, self-reinforcing their captor’s ideas.

Ultimately, very, very few soldiers, once set free, were brainwashed about the Communist regime, but while incarcerated they were more malaise and obedient to their captures. There were less uprisings and escape attempts. This could partly be attributed to the agreements that they signed earlier.

Much in the same way that reading, remembering and signing a sheet of paper about honestly reduced cheating, writing and signing a sheet of paper about how not so great your side in the war is, reduced patriotism even to the point of aiding your captures.

In the industry that I work in, the Internet, there is arguably a gap in understanding between amateurs and professionals and between companies and clients. Clients don’t understand why the hourly rates are so high when their nephew can write HTML! Amateurs are under-cutting professionals without fully understanding the tasks at hand. Clients don’t appreciate the time and effort that has gone into the usability of a site or the back-end code that no one ever sees. Companies developing for the Internet are going one way and academia another. I’m sure the same applies to plenty of other industries.

Could some sort of oath or public declaration be the answer?

Before you begin a project, you sit down with the client and review this oath. It could be fairly stock or drafted special. You both read over it and have all the developers, designers and others taking part sign it. Then, as the project progresses and the teams wants to cut corners, in the back of their minds (or maybe hanging on a wall somewhere in plain view) are their signature on a piece of paper stating that they are a professionals and have minimum standards to uphold. This is different than a contract. Contracts are about money and deliverable. An Oath is more about quality and intentions.

Now, this has to be a two way street. The client gets a signed paper saying that your company and team members will conduct themselves professionally and if the work is shoddy (but is functional and meets the requirements) they can point to that oath. What is the inverse? What does the client give-up to you? Is it trust in your expertise or maybe you can demand a higher fee if your clients know they are getting professional work backed by a public declaration?

I had considered testing this just with myself. I would write down several things I wanted to avoid when I cut corners and see if simply making a list and signing it made a difference. I suspect it might, but without the possibility of public refutation or anyone knowing that I was conducting this experiment it would probably fall short of its original intent.