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Why People Quit Via Op-Ed

Yesterday, in one of the most hilarious “taste it” moments in recent memory, a Goldman Sachs executive quit via a scathing op-ed in the New York Times. Now, Goldman is well-known on the Street and off as a storied firm that's never been more of a...
March 15, 2012, 4:21pm

Yesterday, in one of the most hilarious "taste it" moments in recent memory, a Goldman Sachs executive quit via a scathing op-ed in the New York Times. Now, Goldman is well-known on the Street and off as a storied firm that’s never been more of a ruthlessly-efficient money making machine with a generally sketchy aura, for which it is alternately admired and vilified. But even so, Greg Smith’s piece was stunning in its vengeful language lambasting the firm with accusations that it lacks concern for any of its customers’well-being.

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In terms of the tech world, Smith’s quitting-by-editorial mirrors a string of resignations months ago at Tech Crunch, when a number of staffers and editors jumped ship after an AOL takeover apparently put the site’s editorial freedom into question. So what inspires people to go out with guns a blazin’ like that?

There are two behavioral motives I’m seeing at play here. The first, and likely most obvious, is the revenge factor. For better or worse, revenge seems like a very basic emotion in humans. Studies have proven that it’s rewarded in our brain, like candy and drugs are. But from an evolutionary standpoint, what’s the point?

Scientific American has a great chat with Michael McCullough, a psych professor and director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami, who has researched the motives of revenge in social behavior. In simple terms, revenge is a deterrent against people trying to screw you.

The whole “play with fire and you might get burned” thing is pretty intuitive, right?

I’ve written over and over about the effect cheating has on the evolution of behavior, and it’s largely because there are so many crazy, intricate checks and balances that have risen to defend against it. Our love of some sweet revenge is influenced and encouraged by our inherent need to protect ourselves against getting swindled, tricked, or even embarrassed.

So you don’t steal your older brother’s Halloween candy because you know he’ll give you a swirly, and you don’t play Tim Dogg at Dr. Dre’s house because he’ll end up talking shit about you on Twitter. At the same time, the Tech Crunch staff quit loudly and publicly because they felt they’d been hosed by their AOL overlords. The best way to prevent that happening again is to put the bad guys on blast.

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But is pure revenge what drove Smith to write his piece? It’s impossible to know what happened behind the scenes, but aside from being morally fed up, it doesn’t seem like Smith was totally hosed by Goldman. He’d risen through the ranks fairly quickly, and was a big-time director when he left. And, as much as he’s hating on Goldman, Smith’s revenge takes the form of warning the world (and potential customers) about the shadiness permeating Goldman’s offices. Rather than purely vengeful, that sounds altruistic to me.

In the Richard Dawkins brand of genetically-driven evolution, purely altruistic acts can’t really exist, at least not as a behavior pushed by evolution. So, holding a door for a stranger doesn’t really cost you much more than a little time. But if Smith quit for the sole purpose of warning the public about the evils of Goldman, he gave up a healthy salary (and potentially, his entire future in banking) to do so. The argument goes that such a selfless act isn’t sustainable in evolutionary terms (you’re a lot less likely to spread your genes successfully if you’re constantly giving up all of your resources), and thus pure altruism could not evolve. There are examples that run counter to this, but they’re rare.

Altruism is, simply put, a ridiculously complicated topic in evolution.

Now, there’s a lot of nuance and argument involved in discussions of whether any altruistic acts have pure motives. A great example is that of reciprocal altruism, in which social animals commit selfless acts because they know others in the group will return the favor, and in the long run everyone is better off than if they didn’t participate. It’s the evolutionary behavior equivalent of karma, and I find it a particularly beautiful product of natural selection.

Of course, the one thing we’ve thus ignored – the one thing that is particularly important to humans – is the effect our emotions have on our behavior. So while Smith may have lost future job prospects for so loudly warning others of doing business with his former employer, he gets an emotional payoff of getting all of those ethical quandaries off his chest. He also may score an emotional payoff from people in other industries, who may now value his moral display as well as his experience.

At the same time, his supposed revenge may prove to be a deterrent against further bad behavior from Goldman, but it likely won’t be. In strict terms, that would suggest his revenge behavior didn’t necessarily benefit him. But when you add emotions into the mix – the relief following his venting, the support he’s surely receiving from outside parties – it’s certainly possible he’s better off than he was before. And it’s that emotional impact, outside of strict assessments of gains and losses, that has made seemingly-counterintuitive human behavior succeed. In the end, that might just be the moral of the whole editorial-resignation story.

Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: Why All Politicians Have the Same Haircut.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter. Have a question? Write Derek at derek(at)motherboard.tv.