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The Irrationality of Illegal Fishing (Part 5): Measuring the Problem

June 26, 2014

Why does a fisher, or anyone for that matter, break the law? The dominant explanation in crime research is that people break the law after having conducted an analysis of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of getting caught. This is what is called the rational economic theory of crime.

But what if many people break the law for non-rational reasons?  That is, what if people do not usually conduct an analysis of the expected costs and benefits before breaking the law, but instead cheat according to non-economic factors? This is the subject of the very clever book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of revisiting Ariely’s book to consider how his findings might explain illegal fisher decision-making and point to ways to reduce overall non-compliance in fisheries. It is some of these findings, and my speculations, that I’d like to share with you here as a radically different way to look at the problem of illegal fishing. And since the findings are numerous, I’ll be sharing them in a series format. 

Part 5: Measuring the Problem

Sting operations for lobster are a common occurrence in U.S. fisheries, generally because it is a resource that is easily stolen. But perhaps there is another way to identify a problem in a fishery than the ease with which a marine resource is taken?

Sting operations for lobster are a common occurrence in U.S. fisheries, generally because it is a resource that is easily stolen. But perhaps there is another way to identify a problem in a fishery than through risk profiling?

In the last post in this series, we explored four factors related to how rules are enforced that Dan Ariely’s theory of irrational cheating suggests can be managed to reduce cheating. These factors are 1) the targeting of worst offenders, 2) the targeting of in-group and out-group offenders, 3) the highlighting of positive deviance, and 4) the stopping of minor cheating problems before they grow. As we saw, these factors lead us to consider a number of ways to change how we enforce the rules and regulations of fisheries management. 

Today we’ll take a step back from enforcement considerations and ponder the question, “How do we know when illegal fishing is a problem?”  As is well known, fisheries managers face serious budget constraints as they conduct their business of keeping their stocks healthy, ecosystems sustained, and fleets profitable. Since enforcement actions can be very costly, fisheries managers need some way of determining when illegal fishing is a problem in one fishery or another in order to best allocate their funds. Once again, Dan Ariely’s work offers some new insight into the art and practice of fisheries, particularly a new way that fisheries managers might determine when and where there is a problem. 

Specifically, Dan Ariely’s work suggests that surveys of potential (if not actual) cheaters can provide very important information on the scale of cheating, particularly when that cheating is irrational, or non-economically motivated. This suggestion then leads us to consider how it might be useful to employ fisher surveys to identify compliance problems.

There are two experiments from Dan Ariely’s body of work that allow us to speculate as to the utility of fisher compliance surveys. 

The first was touched on in the last blog, but is interesting enough to bare repeating here (though in shorter form). The study involved Ariely’s math test, a fake paper shredder, a monetary reward, and – in a very clever move – the use of an actor.  The math test gave participants something to cheat at, the fake paper shredder gave Ariely a way to measure cheating, the money gave motive, and the actor gave a social cue as a whether or not it was “ok” to cheat.   

Here again is a quick (and entertaining) description of the experiment, which Ariely dubbed the “Madoff” condition:

Imagine that you are a participant in our so-called Madoff condition. You’re seated at a desk, and the experimenter gives you and your fellow participants the instructions. “You may begin!” she announces. You dive into the problem set, trying to solve as many matrices as possible to maximize your earnings. About sixty seconds pass, and you’re still on the first question. The clock is ticking. 

“I’ve finished!” a tall, skinny, blond-haired guy says as he stands up and looks at the experimenter. “What should I do now?” 

“Impossible,” you think. “I haven’t even solved the first matrix!” You and everyone else stare at him in disbelief. Obviously, he’s cheated. Nobody could have completed all twenty matrices in less than sixty seconds. 

“Go shred your worksheet,” the instructor tells him. The guy walks to the back of the room, shreds his worksheet, and then says, “I solved everything, so my envelope for the extra money is empty. What should I do with it?” 

“If you don’t have money to return,” the experimenter replies, unfazed, “put the empty envelope in the box, and you are free to go.” The student thanks her, waves good-bye to everyone, and leaves the room smiling, having pocketed the entire amount. Having observed this episode, how do you react? Do you become outraged that the guy cheated and got away with it? Do you change your own moral behavior? Do you cheat less? More? It may make you feel slightly better to know that the fellow who cheated so outrageously was an acting student named David, whom we hired to play this role. We wanted to see if observing David’s outrageous behavior would cause the real participants to follow his example, catching the “immorality virus,” so to speak, and start cheating more themselves. 

Here’s what we found. In the Madoff condition, our participants claimed to have solved an average of fifteen out of twenty matrices, an additional eight matrices beyond the control condition, and an additional three matrices beyond the shredder condition. In short, those in the Madoff condition paid themselves for roughly double the number of answers they actually got right. [Emphasis added]

So again, this study shows us that an individual’s perception of what others do matters a lot as they make a decision to cheat or not. But since none of the benefits or potential costs changed, the important factor was irrational, or non-economic. What mattered was the cue provided by the behavior of others. And herein lies what might matter so much for fisher compliance surveys.

Though there are a few instances of where surveys have been used to measure compliance among fishers, they are generally not considered to be part of the fisheries management toolkit. This is likely due to the question of accuracy. Most surveyors appear to know enough to ask fishers not about their own behavior, but rather that of others (it’s easier to tell the truth about others wrong-doing, of course). But even still, there’s no way fishers could be very accurate, so why measure what they believe to be happening? 

Ariely’s research provides a compelling response: perception matters. That is, if fishers, or participants in any system for that matter, perceive others to be breaking the rules, they get a social cue to do the same. Perceptions of wrong-doing lead to wrong-doing, so measuring that perception could well be just as important as knowing how much non-compliance is actually occurring. 

So score “1” for the idea of fisher compliance surveys. 

At the same time that surveys might reveal participants perception of cheating in a system, Ariely’s work also suggests that surveys on the behavior of others, can in fact inform on the survey respondents own behavior. Ostensibly, this provides insight into the process of rationalization. If we cheat, we like to believe that others cheat as well, as a way to justify our own behavior. 

For this, let’s return another study presented in the last blog post. This other study is that which involved the use of “real” and “fake” designer Chloé sunglasses. Ariely had his study participants wear these sunglasses and engage in a variety of experiments, including his fake paper shredder experiment and another experiment that required the counting of dots for money. The twist in all of this was that all of the glasses were the real deal. No fakes were used.

The results of the study were quite fascinating. It was found that just by wearing sunglasses that were believed to be counterfeit, the study participants were able to much more easily engage in cheating. And equally as interesting, a questionnaire filled out by the study participants revealed that the wearers of “fake” sunglasses more often believe that others are capable of immoral behavior.

It’s this questionnaire that’s quite pertinent for this blog. Here’s the description from Ariely of his sunglasses-influenced questionnaire:

[W]e asked another group of participants to put on what we told them were either real or counterfeit Chloé sunglasses. Again, they dutifully walked the hall examining different posters and views from the windows. However, when we called them back to the lab, we did not ask them to perform our matrix or dots task. Instead, we asked them to fill out a rather long survey with their sunglasses on. In this survey, we asked a bunch of irrelevant questions (filler questions) that are meant to obscure the real goal of the study. Among the filler questions , we included three sets of questions designed to measure how our respondents interpreted and evaluated the morality of others. 

The questions in set A asked participants to estimate the likelihood that people they know might engage in various ethically questionable behaviors. The questions in set B asked them to estimate the likelihood that when people say particular phrases, they are lying. Finally, set C presented participants with two scenarios depicting someone who has the opportunity to behave dishonestly, and they were asked to estimate the likelihood that the person in the scenario would take the opportunity to cheat. 

The questions themselves are quite interesting, so I’ll offer them here.

Set A: How likely are people you know to engage in the following behaviors? 

  • Stand in the express line with too many groceries.
  • Try to board a plane before their group number is called.
  • Inflate their business expense report.
  • Tell their supervisor that progress has been made on a project when none has been made.
  • Take home office supplies from work.
  • Lie to an insurance company about the value of goods that were damaged.
  • Buy a garment, wear it, and return it.
  • Lie to their partner about the number of sex partners they have had.

Set B: When the following lines are uttered, how likely is it that they are a lie? 

  • Sorry I’m late, traffic was terrible.
  • My GPA is 4.0.
  • It was good meeting you. Let’s have lunch sometime.
  • Sure, I’ll start working on that tonight.
  • Yes, John was with me last night.
  • I thought I already sent that e-mail out. I am sure I did.

Set C: How likely are these individuals to take the action described? 

  • Steve is the operations manager of a firm that produces pesticides and fertilizers for lawns and gardens. A certain toxic chemical is going to be banned in a year, and for this reason is extremely cheap now. If Steve buys this chemical and produces and distributes his product fast enough, he will be able to make a very nice profit. Please estimate the likelihood that Steve will sell this chemical while it is still legal.
  • Dale is the operations manager of a firm that produces health foods. One of their organic fruit beverages has 109 calories per serving. Dale knows that people are sensitive to crossing the critical threshold of 100 calories. He could decrease the serving size by 10 percent. The label will then say that each serving has 98 calories, and the fine print will say that each bottle contains 2.2 servings. Please estimate the likelihood that Dale will cut the serving size to avoid crossing the 100-calorie- per-serving threshold.

Amazingly, the conclusion from this questionnaire was that counterfeit products cause us to view others as less than honest. Specifically, when reflecting on the behavior of people they know (set A), participants in the counterfeit condition judged their acquaintances to be more likely to behave dishonestly than did participants in the authentic condition. For the list of common excuses (set B), participants believed that they would be more likely told as lies. And for the story descriptions (set C), the participants believed the characters in each as being more likely to choose the shadier option.

This nicely shows that when we do “bad” things, even in minor ways, we can imagine others as more likely to do other “bad” things. This is a fantastic insight as we consider using fisher compliance surveys. It could well be that when fishers report a high degree of wrong-doing in their fishery, as committed by others, they are in fact informing on themselves. 

Pulling this together, Ariely’s work suggests that fisher compliance surveys could be used as a regular “arrow in the quiver” of fisheries managers. These surveys, when constructed to ask fishers about the behavior of others, could be used to reveal how much fishers are either perceiving wrong-doing in the fishery, as committed by others, or in fact projecting their own wrong-doing on to others. Given how poor our ability currently is to measure illegal fishing at the fishery level, it seems like this would be a very effective solution to the measurement problem.

At this point, we’ve covered most of what I believe Ariely’s body of work can teach us, or at least suggest to us, about how we can better manage fisheries to reduce illegal fishing. But, of course, some of the ideas we’ve presented are not entirely new to fisheries work. In the next and final post in this series, I’ll summarize the my conclusions from these blog posts and provide some information on how the research and speculation aligns with the work of other researchers.

The Irrationality of Illegal Fishing (Part 4): The Hidden Costs of Poor Enforcement

June 23, 2014

Why does a fisher, or anyone for that matter, break the law? The dominant explanation in crime research is that people break the law after having conducted an analysis of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of getting caught. This is what is called the rational economic theory of crime.

But what if many people break the law for non-rational reasons?  That is, what if people do not usually conduct an analysis of the expected costs and benefits before breaking the law, but instead cheat according to non-economic factors? This is the subject of the very clever book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of revisiting Ariely’s book to consider how his findings might explain illegal fisher decision-making and point to ways to reduce overall non-compliance in fisheries. It is some of these findings, and my speculations, that I’d like to share with you here as a radically different way to look at the problem of illegal fishing. And since the findings are numerous, I’ll be sharing them in a series format. 

Part 4: The Hidden Costs of Poor Enforcement

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In the last post in this series, we explored two factors that Dan Ariely’s theory of irrational cheating suggests can be managed for reduced cheating. These factors are 1) the discontentedness and 2) the mental tiredness of potential cheaters. Importantly, it is likely that these two factors play a role in fisheries management – quite often low-quality management can lead to dissatisfaction among fishermen, and the status of the fishery’s resources and competition can lead to considerable mental tiredness among fishers as they struggle to make a living. Thus, with Ariely’s theory of irrational cheating, we find the first areas where we might act to reduce irrational illegal fishing.

Today I’ll consider four additional factors that can be managed to reduce irrational cheating, and all of these factors relate to how authorities police the system. They are 1) the targeting of worst offenders, 2) the targeting of in-group and out-group offenders, 3) the highlighting of positive deviance, and 4) the stopping of minor cheating problems before they grow. I’m sure you’ll see quite quickly the implications each of these manageable factors have for fisheries management, and I’ll take some time to provide some speculation for each. 

Collectively, the factors discussed here show that there are presently hidden and irrational costs to poor enforcement in fisheries management. That is, poor enforcement does not just simply allow illegal fishers to “get away with it”, but also also permits illegal fishers (or the lack thereof) to send important signals to other fishers about how they should behave.

The first enforcement factor to consider is that of how authorities do, or do not, target the worst offenders when cheating is present in a system. In the course of Ariely’s work, he conducted many clever studies, but perhaps none so stand out as the time he and a colleague employed an actor to act either as a villain or moral agent. The study revealed that cheating is contagious, and particularly so when potential cheaters witness someone rampantly breaking the rules. 

The study again involved Ariely’s math test with a fake shredder, which allowed him and his colleagues to see how much people really cheated (see past posts for more details). Here is the set up to the study, which Ariely affectionally refers to as the “Madoff condition” in honor of Bernie Madoff:

What would happen if our participants could observe someone else— a Madoff in the making— cheating egregiously? Would it alter their level of cheating? 

Imagine that you are a participant in our so-called Madoff condition. You’re seated at a desk, and the experimenter gives you and your fellow participants the instructions. “You may begin!” she announces. You dive into the problem set, trying to solve as many matrices as possible to maximize your earnings. About sixty seconds pass, and you’re still on the first question. The clock is ticking. 

“I’ve finished!” a tall, skinny, blond-haired guy says as he stands up and looks at the experimenter. “What should I do now?” 

“Impossible,” you think. “I haven’t even solved the first matrix!” You and everyone else stare at him in disbelief. Obviously, he’s cheated. Nobody could have completed all twenty matrices in less than sixty seconds. 

“Go shred your worksheet,” the instructor tells him. The guy walks to the back of the room, shreds his worksheet, and then says, “I solved everything, so my envelope for the extra money is empty. What should I do with it?” 

“If you don’t have money to return,” the experimenter replies, unfazed, “put the empty envelope in the box, and you are free to go.” The student thanks her, waves good-bye to everyone, and leaves the room smiling, having pocketed the entire amount. Having observed this episode, how do you react? Do you become outraged that the guy cheated and got away with it? Do you change your own moral behavior? Do you cheat less? More?

So what happened when an actor did just what Ariely describes above? In the Madoff condition, the experiment participants claimed to have solved an average of fifteen out of twenty problems, an additional eight problems beyond the control condition (which had no opportunity for cheating), and an additional three matrices beyond the shredder condition in which there was no actor. In short, the observance of an egregious cheater raised cheating by roughly double, all while the economic gains remained the same.

While the insight here may not offer new recommendations for fisheries enforcement – that we should target the worst offenders, who likely act in a rational manner – it does suggest that the consequences of inaction are much greater than just letting a “bad apple” continue his or her cheating ways. This research tells us that illegal fishing that appears to be rational, isolated, and large-scale can have significant knock-on effects by promoting irrationally-motivated illegal operations among other fishers. 

The second enforcement factor to consider in the cheating game is that of which “worst violators” are targeted by the authorities. In particular, Ariely’s research reveals that it is very important that enforcement officers target fishers that fall both within the main fishing community, or those which we might call members of the “in-group”, and those fisheries that fall outside of it, which me might call members of the “out-group”. 

Why? Well, apparently when we observe egregious cheating by insiders, or members of the “in-group, we observe it as a signal to cheat quite a bit more. This is what we saw described above in the “Madoff” condition. This is a concerning effect, yet we also see that the opposite is true when we observe cheating by members of the “out-group”. In fact, when we observe cheating by outsiders, we apparently see it as an opportunity to affirm our superiority over others, and act quite a bit better than we would have otherwise.

Let’s return to Ariely’s “Madoff” condition, which is described above, to see how we can arrive at this more sophisticated insight into cheating behavior. 

Ariely and his colleagues followed up their Madoff condition with a modification that had the deviant participant (again, secretly an actor) wear clothing indicating he was a student at a rival school. The result was that the other participants did not look upon a significant cheat as a signal to behave the same, but instead saw “Madoff-level behavior” as a signal to abstain from significant wrong-doing. 

Here’s the description:

The structure of our next experiment was the same as in the Madoff condition: our actor stood up a few seconds into the experiment and announced that he had solved everything and so forth. But this time there was one fashion-related difference: the actor wore a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt. 

Let me explain. Pittsburgh has two world-class universities, the University of Pittsburgh (UPitt) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Like many institutions of higher learning that are in close proximity, these two have a long-standing rivalry…

We conducted all of these experiments at Carnegie Mellon University , and all our participants were Carnegie Mellon students. In the basic Madoff condition, David had worn just a plain T-shirt and jeans and had therefore been assumed to be a Carnegie Mellon student, just like all the other participants. But in our new condition, which we named the “outsider-Madoff condition,” David wore a blue-and-gold UPitt sweatshirt. This signaled to the other students that he was an outsider— a UPitt student— and not part of their social group; in fact, he belonged to a rival group…

[I]f the increase in cheating in the Madoff condition was due to an emerging social norm that revealed to our participants that cheating was acceptable in their social group, this influence would operate only when our actor was part of their in-group (a Carnegie Mellon student) and not when he was a member of another, rival group (a UPitt student). The crucial element in this design, therefore, was the social link connecting David to the other participants: when he was dressed in a UPitt sweatshirt, would the CMU students continue to play copycat , or would they resist his influence? [Emphasis added]

The results of the study did indeed confirm a significant role for the perception of in-group and out-group behavior. The participants that observed the actor cheat when identified as a UPItt student claimed to have solved only nine problems. While this was still more than the control condition (by about two matrices), they cheated far less than if they had thought the cheater was a Carnegie Mellon student!  In all, the introduction of an “outsider” element to the cheating reduced the cheating from about 15 problems to 9 problems!

And even more incredibly, the level of cheating under the outsider condition was even less than under the standard shredder condition, where participants typically cheated by about 12 problems. 

This means that when the violator is perceived to be part of the out-group, irrational cheating can reduce significantly from baseline amounts, while when it is perceived as part of the in-group, irrational cheating can take off. 

The implications for fisheries enforcement are then clear. Fisheries enforcement activities should be sure to target significant cheaters among both in-group and out-group fishers. This recommendation makes me think of the illegal fishing situation in West Africa, where foreign trawlers are responsible for significant amounts of illegal fishing, and are increasingly the targets of enforcement efforts. Yet rarely do we hear about enforcement actions taken against illegal fishers among the domestic fishing fleets in West Africa. It suggests that enforcement agencies may be missing an important opportunity to reduce irrational illegal fishing by not targeting illegal local fishers as well. 

The third enforcement factor that might be better managed to reduce irrational cheating is that of how positive deviants are highlighted among potential cheaters. “Positive deviance” is occurs when a potential cheater acts in an uncharacteristically moral way. (For an example, recall the story of George Washington and the apple tree, when he declared, “I cannot tell a lie.”) Ariely’s research suggests that the observation of positive deviance it is yet another factor affecting cheating. 

Ariely and his colleagues came upon the role of such moral reminders when they modified the Madoff condition in yet another way. In particular, they had their actor dressed as an “in-group” student of Carnegie Mellon, but rather than cheat, the actor pointed out that he could cheat egregiously and then appeared to take the math test as any other. Thus, the actor demonstrated his capacity to cheat, and appeared to restrain himself. 

Here again is a description:

[W]e set up another experiment, with a different type of social-moral information. In the new setup, we wanted to see whether erasing any concern about being caught but without giving an enacted example of cheating would also cause participants to cheat more. We got David [the actor] to work for us again, but this time he interjected a question as the experimenter was wrapping up the instructions. “Excuse me,” he said to the experimenter in a loud voice, “Given these instructions, can’t I just say I solved everything and walk away with all the cash? Is this okay?” After pausing for a few seconds, the experimenter answered, “You can do whatever you want.” For obvious reasons, we called this the question condition. Upon hearing this exchange, participants quickly understood that in this experiment they could cheat and get away with it. If you were a participant, would this understanding encourage you to cheat more? Would you conduct a quick cost-benefit analysis and figure that you could walk away with some unearned dough ? After all, you heard the experimenter say, “Do whatever you want,” didn’t you? 

When this question was posed, and the actor did not proceed to get up immediately and take all the money possible, a very interesting thing happened. The participants still cheated, but by far less than in the standard “Madoff” condition…and even less than the standard “shredder” condition. In this “question” condition, the participants claimed to have solved an average of ten problems— about three more problems than in the control condition (which means they did cheat) but by about two fewer problems than in the shredder condition and by five fewer than in the Madoff condition.

Did you get that? They cheated by less when it was pointed out that they could cheat and get away with it! Now, Ariely saw that only the question-making was of important in this condition, but its just as clear that the condition involved a clever participant (secretly an actor) that chose not to act as he had suggested he might. To me, it leaves a very clear suggestion, that the highlighting of positive deviance, or good behavior, could result in a significant reduction in baseline irrational cheating. 

As for fisheries management, this means there could be a significant benefit if enforcement activities did not just highlight the bad behavior of illegal fishers, but also the good behavior of highly-compliant fishermen. 

The fourth and final enforcement factor that we will consider in this post is how authorities work to end minor, perhaps even innocuous cheating problems. This is relevant as the work of Ariely and his colleagues shows that such minor cheating can lead to cheating elsewhere, and in much more serious ways. 

In other words, cheating can snowball. This was revealed by another study that involved Ariely’s math test and fake shredder, only this time, participants were asked to wear either fake or real designer sunglasses (in fact, all were real).

Here’s the set up:

AT THE START of the experiment, we assigned each woman to one of three conditions: authentic, fake, or no information. In the authentic condition, we told participants that they would be donning real Chloé designer sunglasses. In the fake condition, we told them that they would be wearing counterfeit sunglasses that looked identical to those made by Chloé (in actuality all the products we used were the real McCoy). Finally, in the no-information condition, we didn’t say anything about the authenticity of the sunglasses. 

Once the women donned their sunglasses, we directed them to the hallway, where we asked them to look at different posters and out the windows so that they could later evaluate the quality and experience of looking through their sunglasses. Soon after, we called them into another room for another task. What was the task? You guessed it: while the women were still wearing their sunglasses we gave them our old friend, the matrix task. 

Now imagine yourself as a participant in this study. You show up to the lab, and you’re randomly assigned to the fake condition . The experimenter informs you that your glasses are counterfeit and instructs you to test them out to see what you think. You’re handed a rather real-looking case (the logo is spot-on!), and you pull out the sunglasses, examine them, and slip them on. Once you’ve put on the specs, you start walking around the hallway, examining different posters and looking out the windows. But while you are doing so, what is going through your head? Do you compare the sunglasses to the pair in your car or the ones you broke the other day? Do you think, “Yeah, these are very convincing. No one would be able to tell they’re fake.” Maybe you think that the weight doesn’t feel right or that the plastic seems cheap. And if you do think about the fakeness of what you are wearing, would it cause you to cheat more on the matrix test? Less? The same amount? 

The result of the study was that many more people cheated when they were wearing the “fake” sunglasses than when they were wearing the “real” sunglasses. While 30 percent of the participants in the authentic condition reported solving more problems than they actually had, a whopping 74 percent of those in the fake condition reported solving more problems than they actually had. (Meanwhile, in the control condition, in which the authenticity of the glasses was not revealed, only 42 percent of the women cheated, which was not – in fact – statistically different from the “authentic” condition.)

Ariely and his colleagues found this snowballing effect rather intriguing, so continued to play with their “real” and “fake” sunglasses in other ways. In a rather different study, Ariely & Co. had their participants play a few hundred rounds of a game where they counted dots for money, and – per usual – there was ample room provided for people to cheat.  

What happened when this was combined with “real” and “fake” sunglasses? Interestingly, those with “fake” sunglasses cheated much much more. And while all participants cheated more over time, it was particularly bad for those people who somehow got it in their head that they were the sort of people that do such things (i.e. by wearing fake sunglasses).

I think we all might agree that these results are rather surprising. Can just believing you’re wearing fake designer sunglasses lead you to be someone more likely to steal money in a game? Apparently, the answer is yes. 

The study’s conclusion makes me rather fearful for fisheries where fishers are regularly permitted to cheat in minor ways. I’ve seen such situations arise when enforcement officers are sympathetic to fishers’ needs to fish “every now and then” during closed seasons, and when regulations are so tricky that fishermen might be permitted to fish for significant time periods without the proper documentation. 

This all goes to suggest that it can be rather important that fisheries managers work to ensure that most of their fishers are not just “compliant where it matters” but instead endeavor to have most fishers in 100% compliance with existing rules and regulations. I would suspect that some cases might require that there simply be more enforcement actions taken to engender compliance, but I could also see how this might require some reform of the rules and regulations to reclassify regular fisher behavior as acceptable.  

In sum, Ariely’s theory of irrational cheating offers us a variety of factors related to enforcement activities that might be better managed to reduce irrational illegal fishing. These factors are 1) the targeting of worst offenders, whose actions can have significant knock-on effects; 2) the targeting of both in-group and out-group offenders, which provide positive and negative signaling to other fishers; 3) the highlighting of positive deviance, which can permit fishers to reflect on their behavior and act in a more moral manner; and 4) the stopping of minor cheating problems, which can snowball into serious problems over time.

1. Act in a timely manner to catch the worst offenders. Delaying the apprehension of worst offenders can irrationally signal to other fishers that it is ok to cheat.

2. Ensure that both in-group and illegal fishers are targeted. Observing illegal fishing by members of a fisher’s “in-group” can be a meaningful signal that it is ok to cheat as well, while observing illegal cheating by outsiders – ideally through their apprehension – can allow fishers to reflect upon their behavior and act more morally.

3. Highlight the good behavior of compliant fishers. Fishers’ awareness of other fishers that chose not to act in a non-compliant manner offers an opportunity for they themselves to reflection and improve upon their own behavior.

4. Aim for 100% compliance, even when minor cheating appears to be innocuous. Cheating begets cheating, and an insignificant cheat can lead to more serious problems elsewhere. This might mean increased enforcement, but could also include regulatory reform.

Of course, a bigger question among enforcement agencies is “Which fisheries face significant illegal fishing?”  This is because enforcement agencies typically face steep budget constraints and must be quite careful about how they deploy their resources.  Again, Ariely’s research offers some suggestions as to how we might measure irrational illegal fishing, which as we’ve previously discussed, could well be more damaging to a fishery than rational, economically motivated illegal fishing.  I’ll be tackling this in the next post.

The Irrationality of Illegal Fishing (Part 3): How Mismanagement Promotes Illegal Fishing

June 9, 2014

Why does a fisher, or anyone for that matter, break the law? The dominant explanation in crime research is that people break the law after having conducted an analysis of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of getting caught. This is what is called the rational economic theory of crime.

But what if many people break the law for non-rational reasons?  That is, what if people do not usually conduct an analysis of the expected costs and benefits before breaking the law, but instead cheat according to non-economic factors? This is the subject of the very clever book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of revisiting Ariely’s book to consider how his findings might explain illegal fisher decision-making and point to ways to reduce overall non-compliance in fisheries. It is some of these findings, and my speculations, that I’d like to share with you here as a radically different way to look at the problem of illegal fishing. And since the findings are numerous, I’ll be sharing them in a series format. 

Race to fish

Part 3: How the Mismanagement of Fisheries Promotes Illegal Operations

In the last post in this series, we explored Dan Ariely’s theory of irrational cheating and how it has been tested to reveal that two non-economic factors can encourage dishonesty: 1) the targeting of non-monetary rewards and 2) collaboration. Given that these two factors are present in fisheries and seemingly immutable, we might have good cause for concern.  Thankfully, Ariely’s theory has been tested in other ways, and this has revealed that there are other important factors that can promote or inhibit dishonesty, depending on how they are managed. By implication, we have several reasons to believe that irrational illegal fishing can be reduced, provided that fisheries are properly managed.

Today I’ll consider two of these “manageable” factors: 1) discontentedness and 2) mental tiredness. Let’s look at each in turn and consider how they might play out in a management context. 

The first “manageable” factor affecting dishonesty is that of discontentedness. In short, if someone is upset or frustrated, and sees that cheating offers a chance of revenge, cheating becomes just that much more attractive. Ariely concluded this after a rather amusing experiment involving an actor that annoyingly answers his phone while in conversation with participants.

Ayelet Gneezy (a professor at the University of California, San Diego) and I hired a young actor named Daniel to run some experiments for us in local coffee shops. Daniel asked coffee shop patrons to participate in a five-minute task in return for $ 5. When they agreed, he handed them ten sheets of paper covered with random letters and asked them to find as many identical adjacent letters as they could and circle them with a pencil. After they finished , he returned to their table, collected their sheets, handed them a small stack of bills, and told them, “Here is your $ 5, please count the money, sign the receipt, and leave it on the table. I’ll be back later to collect it.” Then he left to look for another participant. The key was that he gave them $ 9 rather than $ 5, and the question was how many of the participants would return the extra cash. 

This was the no-annoyance condition. Another set of customers— those in the annoyance condition—experienced a slightly different Daniel. In the midst of explaining the task, he pretended that his cell phone was vibrating. He reached into his pocket, took out the phone, and said, “Hi, Mike. What’s up?” After a short pause, he would enthusiastically say, “Perfect, pizza tonight at eight thirty. My place or yours?” Then he would end his call with “Later.” The whole fake conversation took about twelve seconds. 

After Daniel slipped the cell phone back into his pocket, he made no reference to the disruption and simply continued describing the task. From that point on, everything was the same as in the no-annoyance condition. 

We wanted to see if the customers who had been so rudely ignored would keep the extra money as an act of revenge against Daniel. Turns out they did. In the no-annoyance condition 45 percent of people returned the extra money, but only 14 percent of those who were annoyed did so. [emphasis added]

Now, with respect to fisheries, could you imagine that fisheries managers might annoy fishers? In my own experience, this is a virtual certainty in most fisheries around the world because fishers are often not consulted on management changes. Since such frustration could lead fishermen to seek revenge through slightly greater small-scale illegal fishing, it would make sense that managers try to better involve fishermen in decision-making.

Another manageable factor affecting dishonesty is that of mental tiredness. On this factor, Ariely and his colleagues conducted two different experiments. The first looked at “deliberative reasoning” and found that when our higher level faculties are preoccupied, our impulses, and importantly those to act wrongly, gain greater power over our behavior.  This study ingeniously combined a memory exercise with an offer of sweets or fruit.

What did Ariely’s collegues learn? They concluded that the more you work to remember something, the easier it is to chase after something sweet. By implication, this could mean that the harder we work to complete a task or set of tasks, the easier it might be to break our internal rules.

Here’s the description from Ariely’s book:

Baba and Sasha’s experiment went like this: they divided participants into two groups and asked members of one group to remember a two-digit number (something like, say, 35) and they asked members of the other group to remember a seven-digit number (say, 7581280). The participants were told that in order to get their payment for the experiment, they would have to repeat the number to another experimenter who was waiting for them in a second room at the other end of the corridor. And if they didn’t remember the number? No reward. 

The participants lined up to take part in the experiment and were briefly shown either the two-digit number or the seven-digit number. With their numbers in mind, they each walked down the hall to the second room where they would be asked to recall the number. But on the way, they unexpectedly passed by a cart displaying pieces of rich, dark chocolate cake and bowls of colorful, healthy-looking fruit. As participants passed the cart, another experimenter told them that once they got to the second room and recited their number they could have one of the two snacks— but they had to make their decision right then, at the cart. The participants made their choice, received a slip of paper indicating their chosen snack, and off they went to the second room. 

What decisions did participants make while laboring under more and less cognitive strain? Did the “Yum, cake!” impulse win the day, or did they select the healthy fruit salad (the well-reasoned choice)? As Baba and Sasha suspected, the answer depended in part on whether the participants were thinking about an easy-to-remember number or a hard one. Those breezing down the hall with a mere “35” on their minds chose the fruit much more frequently than those struggling with “7581280.”

Similarly, Ariely’s own experiment revealed that when we take on many challenging tasks, we eat away at our ability to inhibit our impulses. This was revealed by yet another clever experiment that asked participants to write essays without using words that contain certain letters (“x” and “z” in the easy condition, and “a” and “n” in the hard condition), and then had these participants undergo Ariely’s famous math test (discussed in the previous two posts in this series). The ultimate finding was that a “tired” participant would irrationally cheat by about 1 more problem (over the 2 average in the regular experiment).

What might this finding about dishonesty and mental tiredness suggest for fisheries? 

Well, while it is inevitable that fishing take some mental effort, the state of the fishery and the quality of fisheries management could really change how difficult it is for fishermen to catch their fish. Just imagine how much more challenging it would be for a fishermen if management has failed to stop overfishing or if there are too many boats in the fishery chasing too few fish (aka “overcapitalization”). While it is reasonable to think that the financial strain of declining catches and overcapitalization would lead to rational, large-scale illegal fishing, the point here is that the mental strain of operating under these conditions can also lead to an uptick in small-scale, non-economically-motivated illegal fishing.   

Similarly, consider the mental challenge facing fishermen when management imposes overly complex fishing regulations. This is indeed a common complaint among fishermen in New England fisheries. 

In sum, two factors that affect irrational dishonesty are 1) discontentedness and 2) mental tiredness. Again, the emphasis here is on the irrational, or dishonesty that stems not from a rational calculation of the costs and benefits, but instead from the competing interests intrinsic to all of us, to benefit from dishonesty, and to be “good” people at the end of the day. As we learned above, it turns out that discontentedness and mental tiredness can tip the scale in favor of benefiting from dishonesty. 

In the case of fisheries management, we can see how managers might reduce the role these factors play in motivating illegal fishing. Specifically, fisheries managements might: 

  1. Adopt co-management structures and processes to involve fishermen in decision-making. This could possibly reduce fishermen’s feelings of discontentedness with management measures.
  2. Provide temporary financial relief to fishermen affected by decreased fisheries abundance. Such a measure could reduce the mental fatigue of a fisherman trying to survive in such a situation.
  3. Reduce overcapitalization through buyouts. This action could, similarly, make life much easier for the remaining fishermen as there would subsequently be fewer boats following the same amount of fish.
  4. Implement simple, straight-forward regulations. The reduced complexity could, again, help fishermen by reducing the mental burden of compliance.

While the first three recommendations have been widely discussed as fisheries best practice, the last measure is most often considered as an after-thought. And so, excitedly, we find our first instance of how Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics might lead us to new understandings in the fight for sustainable fisheries. 

The Irrationality of Illegal Fishing (Part 2): Why It May Be Easier to Steal Fish than Money

June 1, 2014

Why does a fisher, or anyone for that matter, break the law? The dominant explanation in crime research is that people break the law after having conducted an analysis of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of getting caught. This is what is called the rational economic theory of crime.

But what if many people break the law for non-rational reasons?  That is, what if people do not usually conduct an analysis of the expected costs and benefits before breaking the law, but instead cheat according to non-economic factors? This is the subject of the very clever book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of revisiting Ariely’s book to consider how his findings might explain illegal fisher decision-making and point to ways to reduce overall non-compliance in fisheries. It is some of these findings, and my speculations, that I’d like to share with you here as a radically different way to look at the problem of illegal fishing. And since the findings are numerous, I’ll be sharing them in a series format. 

Fishing-for-Dollars-Optimize-for-Search

Part 2: Why It May Be Easier to Steal Fish than Money

In the first post in this series, I explored the phenomenon that “everybody cheats irrationally”. That is, we all are naturally inclined to cheat a little, and we appear to do so based on non-economic factors. In this post, we’ll go a step further and explore Dan Ariely’s theory of why we all cheat in this way. And in turn, we’ll see why it may be easier to steal fish than money.

So why do we all like to cheat by a little bit? Is it because humanity is inherently “rotten at its core”? Are we by nature “bad”? While it might be easy to conclude something like this based on the findings in the last post, Dan Ariely and his colleagues, in fact, offer the very opposite conclusion. They suggest that we all cheat by a little bit because we want to be “good” people at the end of the day. 

Here Ariely explains his theory of irrational cheating:

[O]ur behavior is driven by two opposing motivations. On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation ). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people? This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization…

Why might Ariely and his colleagues offer up this theory? Apart from the rarity of egregious cheating in the math test experiments, found that moral considerations could significantly influence cheating.

Consider one version of the math test experiment that was conducted at the rather culturally liberal university of UCLA. In this version, the experimental condition required participants to recall the Ten Commandments beforehand. What happened? Cheating ceased entirely.

We took a group of 450 participants and split them into two groups. We asked half of them to try to recall the Ten Commandments and then tempted them to cheat on our matrix task. We asked the other half to try to recall ten books they had read in high school before setting them loose on the matrices and the opportunity to cheat. Among the group who recalled the ten books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. On the other hand , in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. And that was despite the fact that no one in the group was able to recall all ten. [emphasis added for your amusement]

And moral reminders need not be religious. In another version of the experiment, Ariely and his colleagues had students at MIT and Yale remember and then sign that they would abide by their university honor code just before the experiment. What happened? Again, no cheating at all. And this was in spite of the fact that neither university has an honor code! 

These “moral reminder” studies show that it is much harder to engage in the process of rationalization when we must actively think about our motivation to be good people.

So if we accept Ariely’s theory that we all cheat up to the point that can still believe we are good people, we might also begin to understand why it might be easier to steal fish than money. It all comes back to the process of rationalization that allows us to be “good” people. Ariely & Co. found a number of non-economic factors can encourage this process. Two such factors that are particularly relevant as we consider illegal fishing are 1) the targeting of non-monetary rewards and 2) collaboration.

Let’s look at each in turn.

With respect to non-monetary rewards, consider this amusing small-scale “study” that Ariely conducted with students in a college dorm. In it, Ariely saw how much easier it was for “participants” to steal a material good, rather than a monetary sum of similar value.

One day, I sneaked into an MIT dorm and seeded many communal refrigerators with one of two tempting baits. In half of the refrigerators, I placed six-packs of Coca-Cola; in the others, I slipped in a paper plate with six $ 1 bills on it. I went back from time to time to visit the refrigerators and see how my Cokes and money were doing— measuring what, in scientific terms, we call the half-life of Coke and money. As anyone who has been to a dorm can probably guess, within seventy-two hours all the Cokes were gone, but what was particularly interesting was that no one touched the bills. Now, the students could have taken a dollar bill, walked over to the nearby vending machine and gotten a Coke and change, but no one did.

I must admit that this is not a great scientific experiment, since students often see cans of Coke in their fridge, whereas discovering a plate with a few dollar bills on it is rather unusual. But this little experiment suggests that we human beings are ready and willing to steal something that does not explicitly reference monetary value…we might take some paper from work to use in our home printer, but it would be highly unlikely that we would ever take $ 3.50 from the petty-cash box, even if we turned right around and used the money to buy paper for our home printer. [emphasis added]

On the basis of this little trick on MIT students, Ariely devised another version of his math test experiment. In this version, rather than have participants directly earn money, they instead earned “tokens”, which they then almost immediately exchanged for real money. This slight distancing of the cheater from his monetary gain had a rather incredible effect upon the scale of the wrong-doing: the cheating almost doubled!

As it turned out, those who lied for tokens that a few seconds later became money cheated by about twice as much as those who were lying directly for money. I have to confess that, although I had suspected that participants in the token condition would cheat more, I was surprised by the increase in cheating that came with being one small step removed from money. As it turns out, people are more apt to be dishonest in the presence of non-monetary objects— such as pencils and tokens— than actual money.

Given that fishermen have to sell their catch, and might not even know how much their catch is worth until the sale, its fair to think that they might have an easier time taking a few dollars worth of illegal fish than, say, people confronted with the opportunity to steal money from the office petty cash box.  

Another good reason why irrational cheating may be easier to engage in when fishing, rather than handling money, is that fishing is very often conducted in groups. And as Ariely and his colleagues found, collaborative work can very easily lead to “altruistic cheating”.

The key experiment in this finding was yet another version of the math test with a fake shredder for the experimental condition participants to dispose of their tests. In this version, participants were paired together, encouraged to get to know each other, and told that each person would be paid half of their team’s earnings.  

So what happened when participants could cheat in a way that benefited not just themselves but others? Cheating again almost doubled!

Hoping to add this important social element to our experimental setup, we devised our next experiment. This time, participants were encouraged to talk to each other, get to know each other, and become friendly. We even gave them lists of questions that they could ask each other in order to break the ice. They then took turns monitoring each other while each of them solved the matrices. Sadly, we found that cheating reared its ugly head when we added this social element to the mix. When both elements were in the mix, the participants reported that they correctly solved about four extra matrices.

In this way, we might also see that when the earnings of a fishing trip are shared across a crew, each member might be incentivized to cheat more than he or she would on their own. 

In sum, Ariely makes a rather good argument that the driver of “irrational” cheating is the extent to which we can convince ourselves that we are still good people afterwards. And unfortunately for fisheries managers, Ariely has found that non-monetary rewards and collaboration can significantly aid cheaters in their rationalizations. 

But while the non-monetary rewards and collaborative nature of fishing cannot be changed, there do appear to be two other aspects of fisheries that could be better managed to reduce irrational illegal fishing. I’ll touch on these aspects in the next post.

The Irrationality of Illegal Fishing (Part 1): Everybody Cheats Irrationally

May 30, 2014

Why does a fisher, or anyone for that matter, break the law? The dominant explanation in crime research is that people break the law after having conducted an analysis of the costs, benefits, and likelihood of getting caught. This is what is called the rational economic theory of crime.

But what if many people break the law for non-rational reasons?  That is, what if people do not usually conduct an analysis of the expected costs and benefits before breaking the law, but instead cheat according to non-economic factors? This is the subject of the very clever book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.

Dan Ariely Book

I’ve recently had the pleasure of revisiting Ariely’s book to consider how his findings might explain illegal fisher decision-making and point to ways to reduce overall non-compliance in fisheries. It is some of these findings, and my speculations, that I’d like to share with you here as a radically different way to look at the problem of illegal fishing. And since the findings are numerous, I’ll be breaking them up into various blog posts over the following month. 

Part 1: Everybody Cheats Irrationally

In this first part of the series, I want to present to you what is perhaps the most important finding from Ariely and his colleague’s work: everybody cheats and economics has little or nothing to do with it. 

How did Ariely and his colleagues come to this conclusion? By using a basic math game, monetary rewards for correct answers, and an experimental condition that ingeniously involves a fake paper shredder. Here’s a description of the method, as performed at MIT:

We posted announcements all over the MIT campus (where I was a professor at the time), offering students a chance to earn up to $ 10 for about ten minutes of their time. * At the appointed time, participants entered a room where they sat in chairs with small desks attached (the typical exam-style setup). Next, each participant received a sheet of paper containing a series of twenty different matrices (structured like the example you see on the next page ) and were told that their task was to find in each of these matrices two numbers that added up to 10 (we call this the matrix task, and we will refer to it throughout much of this book). We also told them that they had five minutes to solve as many of the twenty matrices as possible and that they would get paid 50 cents per correct answer (an amount that varied depending on the experiment). Once the experimenter said, “Begin!” the participants turned the page over and started solving these simple math problems as quickly as they could…

Now imagine you are in another setup, called the shredder condition, in which you have the opportunity to cheat. This condition is similar to the control condition, except that after the five minutes are up the experimenter tells you, “Now that you’ve finished, count the number of correct answers, put your worksheet through the shredder at the back of the room, and then come to the front of the room and tell me how many matrices you solved correctly.” If you were in this condition you would dutifully count your answers, shred your worksheet, report your performance, get paid, and be on your way…

With the results for both of these conditions, we could compare the performance in the control condition, in which cheating was impossible, to the reported performance in the shredder condition, in which cheating was possible. If the scores were the same, we would conclude that no cheating had occurred. But if we saw that, statistically speaking, people performed “better” in the shredder condition, then we could conclude that our participants overreported their performance (cheated) when they had the opportunity to shred the evidence. And the degree of this group’s cheating would be the difference in the number of matrices they claimed to have solved correctly above and beyond the number of matrices participants actually solved correctly in the control condition.

Based on this experiment, Ariely found that many people cheated when given the chance. 

In the control condition, participants solved on average of four out of twenty problems. Participants in the shredder condition claimed to have solved an average of six— two more than in the control condition. And this overall increase did not result from a few individuals who cheated egregiously, but from lots of people who cheated by just a little bit. 

Such an outcome would not at all accord with a rational economic model. Why wouldn’t the participants in the “shredder” condition cheat by more than just two problems? Economics would suggest that the cheaters should cheat by far more. 

Of course, proponents of rational economics in this case might say that it would be “rational” to cheat by just a little. Two counter arguments would be that 1) the monetary reward of 50 cents per question was not enough to risk detection and that 2) participants did not want to risk detection by reporting a higher answer score (say 20 out of 20). 

Thankfully, Ariely and his colleagues tested both explanations and found that neither mattered. In fact, in the case of offering higher monetary rewards, cheating actually went down!  Here’s Ariely description of modifying the reward structure:

We set up another version of the matrix experiment, only this time we varied the amount of money the participants would get for solving each matrix correctly. Some participants were promised 25 cents per question; others were promised 50 cents, $ 1, $ 2, or $ 5. At the highest level, we promised some participants a whopping $ 10 for each correct answer. What do you think happened? Did the amount of cheating increase with the amount of money offered? …It turned out that when we looked at the magnitude of cheating, our participants added two questions to their scores on average, regardless of the amount of money they could make per question. In fact, the amount of cheating was slightly lower when we promised our participants the highest amount of $ 10 for each correct answer…slightly lower when we promised our participants the highest amount of $ 10 for each correct answer. [emphasis added]

As for testing whether standing out as a cheater mattered, Ariely and his colleagues modified their game to tell the experimental condition participants that the average correct score was double the true average. They found that such a modification made no difference in the level of cheating at all.

We tested this idea in our next experiment. This time, we told half of the participants that the average student in this experiment solves about four matrices (which was true). We told the other half that the average student solves about eight matrices. Why did we do this? Because if the level of cheating is based on the desire to avoid standing out, then our participants would cheat in both conditions by a few matrices beyond what they believed was the average performance (meaning that they would claim to solve around six matrices when they thought the average was four and about ten matrices when they thought the average was eight). So how did our participants behave when they expected others to solve more matrices? They were not influenced even to a small degree by this knowledge. They cheated by about two extra answers (they solved four and reported that they had solved six) regardless of whether they thought that others solved on average four or eight matrices. [emphasis added]

This finding that “everybody cheats irrationally” has two important implications for illegal fishing prevention. 

First, it suggests that most illegal fishing is conducted not by specialized, economically rational criminals, but by ordinary fishermen that cheat by just a little. If this is the case, then the low-level illegal fishing of the many might add up to a much more significant problem than the high-level fishing of the few. That is, ten fishermen stealing 1,000 fish each might not matter near as much as thousands of fishermen stealing 100 fish each.

Second, it suggests that  fisheries managers should begin to consider the “irrational” or non-economic factors affecting illegal fishing if they hope to preserve their resources. It is these “irrational” factors that I’ll consider in the following posts.

The Unifying World of Freediving

March 16, 2014
IMG_4036

The training board at Freedive Dahab, the biggest freediving shop in the world. The first column lists times for static (not moving) breath holds in water. The second column lists the distances, in meters, that people can swim horizontally in shallow water. The third is the most famous discipline, vertical diving under your own ability.

Perhaps more than anything, I have been amazed by the power of freediving to unite diverse peoples.  Here in Dahab, Egypt, I train alongside folks from across the globe. My country list so far includes: Croatia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Italy, Holland, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Ukraine, Egypt, Russia, and Korea.

And these folks represent a wide range of social groups, from white collar to blue, students to professionals, and rich to middle-income.Yet at no point do I feel that there is a division between us. Even the apparent gender divide (about 80% of the shop divers are men) disappears when you see that Freedive Dahab, the biggest freediving shop in the world (with sister shops in Thailand and S. Africa) is entirely owned and operated by two very talented and savvy women.

In spite of all the ways we might differ, the sport of freediving is imbued with a welcoming and genuine spirit of camaraderie.

Similarly, I find it fascinating how ‘flat’ the global freediving community is. Here current and former world record holders are talked about by their first names – e.g., “William”, “Sara” – and pros might train right alongside complete novices like myself.  Just take a look at the picture of Freedive Dahab’s training board above to see the range in abilities.

Part of the reason for this fairly level ‘training field’ between professionals and amateurs is that the freediving community is small.  Freedive Dahab is clearly the biggest dive shop in the world, and yet currently boasts no more than perhaps 15 freedivers in training. But far more important, I believe, is the fact that freediving is inherently a humbling and grounding experience.

What do I mean? Well, consider that every diver faces his or her mortality when they dive down, and every diver, no matter how good they may be, depends on the good grace and support of other divers for their safety and improvement. These truths cannot help but remind us that we are all one people with the same basic desires – to live, to breath, to overcome our fears – and that no matter how how much we train, none of us can go it alone.

The sport of freediving has a lot more to teach us than how to hold our breathes underwater.

Panel on Conservation in the 21st Century

February 21, 2014

UPDATE: The panel went off really well. For those of you interested, you may find a recording here.

 

I invite you all to remotely attend a panel on “Conservation in the 21st Century”. I will have the distinct pleasure of serving as the moderator for the event, and I am quite willing to bet that it will be a fun and thought-provoking experience for all.  The event will take place at 5pm EST at tinyurl.com/kbhkpfx. More details are below.

 

Panel on Conservation in the 21st Century - Final

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