Below is my favourite short story about systems that encourage us to act irrationally. This actually happened, so it is completely true.
It was 2006, I think. The economy, especially in Edmonton, was booming. I was at a party as my wife’s guest, so I didn’t know a lot of people. The host had invited a few friends from her work in the accounting department of a large and well-known local business.
As is typical whenever people from work get together outside of work, they eventually started talking about work. These people hated their jobs. I listened to them complain about their horrible work environment for twenty minutes.
Then I interjected, “Things can’t be too bad there, if you all still work there.”
They paused for a moment, and one of the women turned to me and said: “You don’t understand how bad it is. It’s so bad that our job causes miscarriages. Okay? There have been like three miscarriages this year alone!” And off they went again, talking about how their employer kills unborn babies.
“So why don’t you leave?” I asked. “Everyone in this city—every employer—is dying to get people to work for them. Why don’t you just walk across the street and work there?”
They all shook their heads. “No, I couldn’t do that,” explained the woman. “You see, I took a continuing education course a few months ago, and [my employer] paid for it. If I left, I would have to pay them back for the course. It’s in my contract.”
“How much was the course?” I inquired.
“About $500,” she replied.
So, this woman was willing to work at a job that she hated, in an environment so stressful that it causes miscarriages, because she might have to pay back $500.
Setting aside the likelihood that the workplace is truly that bad (it only matters that employees perceive it to be horrible), it’s astounding that people would forgo legitimate employment alternatives because of that amount of money. It reminds me of indentured servitude—but for what is really a small sum, or at least an amount that could be overcome relatively easily, considering the ultimate prize of having a comfortable work environment.
Such notions seem to short-circuit all reasonable thought. They’re like optical illusions that work on a much grander scale; they create blind spots in our thinking.