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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. 

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