Causes & cures for a reality-eating disease
A company tries to convince its employees not to unionize by, uh, showing them how fun it is to work there. Photo cred: my dad.
When people lose touch with reality, psychologists call it psychosis. People with psychosis hear or see things that aren’t there, like voices that tell them to set stuff on fire, or they believe things that aren’t real, like “the weatherman on TV wants to kill me." When people experience psychosis, we take them to the doctor.
Of course, what’s real and what’s not is a matter of some debate. Some people think God is real and others don’t. Some things are only “real" because lots of people pretend they’re real––like gender and Bitcoin––and sometimes people stop pretending one thing and start pretending another. With such expansive gray areas around reality, you have to go pretty far off the deep end before everybody will agree you’re delusional. That means we have few false positives when spotting psychosis, but it also means we can easily miss departures from reality that don’t rise to the level of wearing tinfoil hats and thumbtacking conspiracy maps to the walls.
It’s especially tough to spot these lesser psychoses in organizations, which can distort reality for everyone inside them. Corporations and institutions can make people feel totally normal about doing bizarre things like parading around in ridiculous robes, or dancing stupidly in front of hundreds of people, or shouting “I can help the next shoe lover over here!” (this really happens at DSW!).
These delusions are fine when we’re just helping shoe lovers, but some of them cause real harm. Here are actual things that have happened to me in organizations:
On a consulting job, I was supposed to read a bunch of scientific papers and rate them from one (bad) to four (great). They all had serious issues––nonrandomized designs, tiny samples, confounded methods––so I gave them all ones and twos. “Great work!” the project manager said. When he presented my work to the client, I saw he had changed all the ones and twos to threes and fours. “This is all based on solid scientific evidence,” he told them, confidently. When we debriefed afterward, he explained that his edits were improvements. “We have to adjust the ratings based on the quality of evidence we expect,” he said. I’m still not sure what this means.
While doing my PhD, I also worked as a resident advisor in an undergraduate dorm. Every year the RAs would have two days of mandatory training, during which administrators would tell us things like “you should do active listening” and “we bought a button-maker you can use for study breaks.” But in my actual job I would have to do harrowing things like visit students in the hospital after they had mental breakdowns, or comfort them after they lost a loved one, or represent them through their disciplinary proceedings––for which I received no training at all.
Like any good academic, I was preparing to submit to a conference the day before the deadline. I loaded up the submission portal and found, to my horror, pages of rules. The requirements were so numerous and complicated that I would have to reformat my paper and completely rewrite chunks of it; I might not be able to do it all in time. I considered not submitting at all, but ended up just sending in what I had without any changes. The submission page warned me that my paper would not be reviewed unless it met 100% of the requirements, and it forced me to check a bunch of boxes affirming that it did. (It didn’t.) Two days later I got an email saying my paper had passed inspection and was being reviewed.
Only in organizations can these things happen without anybody thinking anything weird is going on. If we were just two friends and I showed you shoddy evidence and claimed I was doing you a favor, or lectured you about button-makers when you were about to visit someone in the hospital, or barred you from talking about science because you formatted a Word document incorrectly, I would be totally bonkers and you’d be pretty upset. But if we were coworkers, it would just be another day on the job. These organizationally induced delusions deserve a name, and I think bureaucratic psychosis is as good as any.
Maybe you’re magically immune to this reality-eating disease, but I am not. I have written 20-page syllabi for classes I’ve taught, somehow believing that students were going to read them top-to-bottom even though I never did that when I was a student, not even once. I have proudly served on committees who earnestly believed we were generating deep insights that would change powerful institutions, when in fact all we were generating was reimbursable lunch receipts. I cheerfully told lies as a university tour guide, from “everybody gets into the classes they want” to “the grade deflation policy does not cause a universal sense of panic and despair”––I suppose based on the belief that it’s fine to lie as long as the grand project of liberal arts education is paying you $12 an hour to do it.
I want to do better. This post is an attempt at self-vaccination against bureaucratic psychosis; maybe the jab will work for you too.
Psychosis is a big accusation and we have to be gentle with it. Not every seemingly inane bureaucratic behavior is actually delusional: maybe there’s a reasonable explanation that just hasn’t been shared with you, or maybe the person knows damn well that what they’re doing makes no sense but they need the job so they gotta look busy. And occasionally people act out of pure malice or ignorance, in which case the diagnosis is not bureaucratic psychosis but being a big dumb jerk.
True bureaucratic psychosis arises out of people’s desire to do a good job. As I’ve written before, people want to do a good job so badly that, if you channel that desire just right, they’re capable of killing their own kin. I never saw myself as misleading the youth when I told my tour guide fictions; I was serving my school!
The desire to do a good job is normally a good thing, but it is easily exploited by bad incentives. If your job is to wow the client, you’re going to spend all night polishing your PowerPoint slides, not fretting about whether the information contained in them is, strictly speaking, true. You want to ace the meeting, win business for your company, and impress your boss––all fine motivations!––and so you “correct” the slides to make the evidence look better.
Importantly, people suffering from bureaucratic psychosis obey bad incentives not out of cynicism or self-interest, but because they’ve been deluded into thinking that obeying bad incentives is good. If you’re conflicted about lying to a client, you’re at least still connected to reality. Organizations can sever that connection by surrounding you with people who act like it’s good to do wrong. Watching your coworkers spin half-truths as whole-truths and get rewarded for it can easily lead a good-hearted person to conclude that fudging the numbers isn't really lying––it’s just standard operating procedure.
Once the seeds of goodwill have been planted in a field of bad incentives, two psychological phenomena make them grow. First, organizations separate people with what my colleagues call “psychological distance.” People physically or emotionally close to us appear as detailed individuals in our minds, whereas people physically or emotionally far from us are blurry blobs, and we tend to treat individuals much better than blobs. If you never interact with resident advisors except the one day when you’re in charge of training them, you might think of them as “university professionals responsible for student success” rather than “this guy Adam who might have to go to the hospital to make sure a student is not a suicide risk.” That’s why I always got vague, insipid advice from administrators (“foster an inclusive community”) and specific, useful advice from my fellow RAs (“at your first entryway meeting, have everybody take out their phones and put the RA-on-call number into their contacts”). Admins saw me as an abstraction, peers saw me as a person. Bureaucratic psychosis thrives on the bizarre things we’re willing to do to “applicants” and “clients” and “departments” that we would never to do to “Amy” and “Cameron” and “Diego.”
Second, the effects of bureaucratic psychosis proliferate because people have a predilection to solve problems with addition. In one of my favorite recent papers, people in all sorts of predicaments preferred to introduce something new rather than take something away, even when removal was optimal. Put people in charge of rules, meetings, and forms, and their first inkling will be “there should be more rules, meetings, and forms.” We can easily mistake prolific workers for good workers and reward their pointless abundance by making them indispensable––once we have all these rules, meetings, and forms, someone’s gotta manage them!
If you suspect that you or someone you love is suffering from a bout of bureaucratic psychosis, resist the urge to shout. If someone thinks they’re receiving important transmissions from Planet Glorbulon, you are not going to convince them otherwise by yelling “NO YOU’RE NOT!!” Similarly, if the DMV wants you to bring in an original copy of your birth certificate in order to renew your license, hollering “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO DO THIS!!” is not going to change their policies, though it might get you a free ride in a police car.
Fortunately, there are a few half-decent preventatives and remedies that you can use on yourself and others. One is asking why. Why do we have to stick around until five even when there’s no work to do? Why do we have a company picnic if nobody likes it? Why do we get subsidized yoga mats and mindfulness apps, but not dental coverage? You may find cockamamie reasons all the way down, but why is a good place to start, and it only costs you three letters.
(One downside of asking other people why is that they might gleefully try to suck you into their delusions. When my university unveiled a sprawling surveillance scheme that would track students’ phones for COVID-19 contact tracing, I asked why such a thing was necessary and was immediately invited to join the Surveillance Scheme Steering Committee.)
Another balm for bureaucratic psychosis is to narrow the psychological distance. Imagine Percy in accounting, just trying to do the job that you pay him $70k a year to do: does he really need an all-company email announcing a new Assistant Vice President of Corporate Excellence? Better yet, ask whether you would inflict your organizational powers on your friends. If you wouldn’t force them to fill out a five-page travel reimbursement form, why do it to anyone else? (If the answer is that you don’t trust your coworkers and employees, maybe it’s time to get another job.)
Yet another potential treatment is attempting to reverse your preference for using addition to solve problems. I was once in a big meeting about low departmental morale, and people were abuzz with ideas: Give the grad students second advisors! Start a newsletter! Host a trivia night! Maybe these would help, but they all seemed to assume that we were glum because we just weren’t trying hard enough. What if instead we didn’t require PhD students to memorize hundreds of citations in order to pass pointless all-day exams? Could we shorten the 25-page legal documents we have to fill out before we’re allowed to ask participants such invasive questions as “Do you own a pet”? How about getting rid of the professors who abuse their students?
The fourth and most powerful cure for bureaucratic psychosis is simply acquainting yourself with people who are immune to it. Some people have a supernatural ability to repel pointlessness. Knowing them is like believing the floor is literally lava and then watching someone walk blithely across it, unburnt. They un-distort reality wherever they go, making some people very upset––if you’ve spent your career selling lava-resistant shoes or building air-conditioned real estate on the supposedly lava-less parts of the world, you don’t take kindly to someone who exposes that you’ve been profiteering on make-believe your whole life. Fortunately, the antibodies that these delusion-less folks enjoy seem to be airborne, and just spending time breathing deeply in their presence is enough to acquire some.
Like our cures for actual psychosis, all of these are more effective when willingly self-administered than when forced on someone else. I’ve rarely succeeded in dispelling the delusions I spot in the institutions I call home––and now I rarely try––but spotting delusions in others has helped me dispel them in myself.
Sometimes, of course, the bureaucracies are too tangled and the psychosis is too deep, and then we have to switch from treatment to management. When you’re stuck on a 1,000-person webinar about exciting new updates to the company’s core competency benchmark tracking system, your only recourse is the 21st century form of civil disobedience: turn off your camera and look at Instagram.
Every time I shake myself out of a bout of bureaucratic psychosis, I feel both frightened and free. It’s like suddenly realizing that not only does the emperor have no clothes, everybody else is buck-naked too. And while it’s scary to see everyone disconnected from reality––and to know that you were just the same until a second ago––it’s also liberating to know that you don’t have to listen to the Birthday Suit Emperor or anyone else. They’re just people with their naughty bits hanging out, and they only have power over you when you share the same delusion with them.
Once I’ve excised a psychosis, the best way I’ve found to keep it at bay is to simply excuse myself from other people’s Renaissance Fair realities and go play somewhere else. Let the obtuse administrators, sadistic gatekeepers, and conmen consultants rule their blob-land; I am happy sharing a little corner of the world with people who see me as a person.
So I quit the consulting job. When I’m planning my class, I remind myself I’m not “designing learning assessments,” I am “forcing Simon and Parth and Eliza to fill out a worksheet,” and then I trash the worksheet. I’ve become an anti-tour-guide for institutions I’ve been affiliated with––don’t get a master’s degree at Oxford, it’s a scam.
Of course, to everybody else, I might look like the crazy one. But that’s fine. I’m on my way to Planet Glorbulon, and the transmissions say it’s beautiful there.