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The False Middle

“Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right
Here I am
Stuck in the middle with you”

Stuck in the Middle
Joe Egan / Gerry Rafferty (Stealers Wheel)

I’m always fascinated by lies. Some whoppers are so easy to spot, it’s laughable. Some people believe anyway, and you have to wonder if they really want to get lied to, as a viable alternative to suffering the pains of reality. The best lies of all though, are the ones you never see coming. If you don’t engage incomming data as disputable facts at all, your BS detector might as well be off-line, entirely. The best lies, aren’t even made of words at all. The kind of lie I’d like to discuss today is a hybrid of sorts. If it were a computer program, it would be a lie structure, or lie object, if you will. You just need to instanciate it in the context of your choice, and it does all the heavy lifting for you. It’s well designed and time proven. It’s called the bell curve.

Now, I know you’re thinking Bozo is a couple of clowns short of a car load right now, but bear with me. Sure, the bell curve, as a tool for statistical analysis, is pretty cool. Sure enough, lots of questions that ask for a varying degree type response generate beautiful bell curves when plotted. Indeed the very idea of the bell curve conjures up strong feeling of science, numbers, and statistics. That’s fine, when it’s actually being used to interpret scientific data. The trouble is simply that it’s usually not used for anything resembling science.

A network marketer once said to me, “Are you interested in the products, or the business?” The question was rhetorical, because at that point he already had my money and was training me to bring more disciples into his network. He went on to explain that when you word a question that way, it automatically gives you a ‘yes’ to follow up on. Then he described the domino theory of stacked ‘yeses’ and I began to realize that I had a lot of vitimins to swallow in the next year or so. This kind of question is what is known as a false dichotomy. You are presented with two options as if you must choose one of them. It’s never stated that a simple, unqualified “no” is also a valid, logical answer. They are trained to pull you back from that ‘no’ too, though, so don’t think I’m providing proper defence of network marketers here. But people are cynical, and it occurs to many to answer ‘neither’ to the proverbial yes or no question, or to say ‘no’ outright to the false dichotomy. So, a new and improved false dichotomy was required, and the bell curve works amazingly well.

We all get the proper use of a bell curve, but here’s the deceptive use in a nutshell:

Some people are totally blind.
Other people have perfect human vision.
The rest of us, lie somewhere in the middle.

So, what do you mean I failed my vision test, I correctly identified exactly half of the letters on the eye chart?

Yes, I intentionally picked an absurd example. Here’s one more:

This glass of stout is empty
That glass of stout is the fullest pour I’ve ever seen
Most pours lie somewhere in the middle

So, at my bar, I’m just going to pour them a little more than half full, saving time and money. Nobody will complain.

Perhaps in my examples, I’m being too intentionally non-confrontational. Maybe you’d rather some examples ripped from the headlings, so to speak. Too bad! Bozo don’t play that way. But, I do feel a need to make an exaple that more accurately demonstrates how the bell curve is really used. O.K., let’s use a purely fictional example. First, we need some background:

XYZ, Inc. is a company that makes software for widgets, and they’re the best at it too! Needless to say, widgets have set release schedules and sometimes crunch time is required to get a working piece of software done in time to be burnt into the firmware of the widget. Failing to meet a software deadline would be disasterous for XYZ company and it’s anchor client ABC, Ltd. XYZ’s development of firmware for ABC’s revolutionary Widget 3000 was riddled with pitfalls. It was horrible for all hands on deck, because all the programmers were called in for lots and lots of overtime. The pay? A promise of a sweet bonus. About 10% of the programmers balked though. They had families and hobbies that had nothing to do with widgets, firmware, or even hanging out with the gang for the 13th pizza and work party on Friday night. They started making lots of excuses, and for the sake of the example, everybody knew exactly who was going to be noticably absent in hours 41-60. But all projects do come to an end, and there was to be a cerimonial dividing of the bonus pool. T. B. Kahuna sent a memo to the programming staff (yeah, it was on real paper. Can you believe it?) that said essentially this:

XYZ, Inc. values the contributions of all emplyoyees, but we all know that some gave their 110% every day while others were content with less. A bonus is exactly that, something extra. As CEO, I have complete discretion over how much, if indeed any, bonus money I pay to each employee. I don’t want to single out anybody specifically, as we are a really, solid team. I considered asking for a vote on what the underperformers on overtime should be paid, but instead, for the good of the team, I’ve decided to give you all a chance to privately, rate your own value on a scale of one to ten to the ABC firmware project. I’m not going to base your bonus entirely on your self-evaluations, but I will certainly consider them, and the honesty with which they were prepared. Thanks again for all your help! A celebratory pizza party is being held this Friday, attendence is mandatory, regardless of how you evaluated yourself. You all deserve a big pat on the back, so come give yourself one.

Did you catch the bell curve? I never said it was always going to be obvious. Let’s break it down:

XYZ, Inc. has the right to not give you a bonus
But XYZ Inc. wants to reward the best employees
However, XYZ, Inc. values the good of the team, so it’s unlikely even the come late, leave early, and take a long lunch crowd is going to get totally frozen out.

When the staff considers their self-evaluation it’s a little different:

I could have worked exactly 40 hours a week and still been an asset to the team
The best people dedicate every waking hour to the project, for the team.
Well, I’m not among the worst, but I could have done more, so I’m somewhere in the middle.

So on all counts, most employees lie somewhere in the middle, right? Wrong. Go back and read the background. I stated that 10% of the staff were not playing ball at all, and it’s my example. For the sake of simlicty assume that 90% attended every possible overtime session and 10% avoided them always. The only time the die hards were absent was for an excuse that would have worked in the middle of the day anyway. The only time the slackers showed up was when there was a specific requirement for some certain task they had to do, same as they would have for a non-crunch, a.k.a. genuine, emergency.

So, what is T. B. Kahuna’s game? How does the self-evaluation figure into it? Simple, T. B. Kahuna doesn’t care about ABC project at all anymore. He got his check from ABC, Ltd. already and he made a tidy profit. His immediate problem is shrinking that bonus pool and keeping more of his profit for himself. He is using an implied bell curve structure to get his long suffering employees to lower their own expectations of their bonus. How? By gently pushing them to the middle. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to be on either edge of a bell curve, when it’s presented as a bell curve. Sure, we’re number one, but were not number one when we’re in the same room with number eleven out of ten. We want to be great, but we don’t really want to have to face the opposite of greatness and declare it, especially when we didn’t even ever play that team this season. T. B. Kahuna has essentially halved his entire staff’s expectations for the size of their bonus, so he can diburse roughly 70% of what he would have paid pre-memo and probably yeild a greater degree of employee satisfaction out of the deal. Everybody is probably going to get the exact same bonus, even those deadbeats who only gave it 100%. Maybe he favors a few syncophants, that he has future plans for, but that’s totally unrelated to this. T. B. Kahuna perhaps could have justified shaving 10% off the bonus pool by not paying the slackers, which would have certainly caused them to start updating their resumes. Instead, he shaved 30% off the bonus pool, and didn’t completely alienate anybody.

You see the bell curve isn’t just a false dichotomy, it’s a false range. It’s most usefull in situations where it’s impossible to bring people totally in lock step with your ideal objective, but you know you can at least start them on the journey toward your way of thinking. Truly, you can’t convince upward thinking people of the wisdom of down, but with a little effort to define a false middle between up and down. By using a bell curve, you can get some downward momentum and build some real support for living on the surface between up and down. Then you wait a while. Then you do it again. This time, the surface is the new up, but down is still the same old down. Now you’ve got some of the surface dwellers, not all of the up thinking people though, moving underground with you. They still aren’t there with you, any you’ll never get all of them, but you will get some. Eventually, they’re in deep enough to consider themselves die-hard proponents of down, or at least close enough for your purposes. Yeah, the overall yeild of converts is a lot lower than you would have liked, but it’s more than you ever could have got by just going with a message of pure down. Plus, a decent amount of people, although not full-fledged downers, are far enough away from up that they certainly can’t be considered uppers any more. So although they aren’t in your camp per se, they certainly aren’t in the other guy’s camp either. Your opponent’s loss is at least a partial win for you.

But, surely you’re too smart for all of this. You reject the false middle and stay extreme. Hey, you’ve got way more character that way, plus a proud feeling of some kind of integrity is filling your heart with joy and mirth. Congratulations! You’ve successfully dodged a deceptively false bell curve, and settled instead for a lower tech false dichotomy. You’re not only a still sucker, but you fell for an even simpler scam. Now do you get it? The bell curve is a very advance form of lie. Even when you win, you still lose.