Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Asymmetric power boosts extortion in the workplace

phys.org | What do profit-driven bosses do if they are not satisfied with an employee's conduct? They use their strategic advantage to blackmail their subordinates: "If you don't want to do the job, I'm sure we'll find somebody else who does". Together with researchers from Harvard University and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria), researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön have found that asymmetrical power encourages extortionate behaviour. Both in a model and an experimental setup, such 'blackmailing' strategies proved successful for the extortionists. An especially surprising finding was that subordinates were in fact better off if they played along in the unfair game. However, extortionists shouldn't be too obviously selfish; they are only successful if they maintain a well-measured degree of friendliness.

Nearly one in two people will take advantage of others if the opportunity arises: that is the sobering conclusion of a study recently published by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. The scientists asked 160 students to take part in the so-called 'prisoner's dilemma' game where two players choose, over several rounds, if they will cooperate with each other or not to receive a cash payoff. In this scenario, cooperation only pays off if the respective opponent also cooperated.

This means that particularly Machiavellian players can lull their opponents into a false sense of security by initially cooperating, only to unexpectedly withhold cooperation in the next round. In this case, the selfish player receives an especially large payoff, whereas their opponent is left empty-handed. Such strategies, however, are only successful in the short term. Ultimately, extortionate players often emerge as losers, because their opponents tend to stop cooperating with them altogether.