Tom Brady, Flat Footballs and Angry Monkeys

This is a story about Underinflated Footballs and Angry Capuchin Monkeys.

It is for those of you who manage the finances – the purse strings – of an organization. Read on to see if this post goes where you think it might . . .

(By Daven Morrison) The New England Patriots are currently awaiting their punishment for breaking the rules. They removed air from the footballs they used in the NFC championship game and the presumption is they did it for a competitive advantage. Most who comment on this story note that the devious scheming did not make a difference as the game was an easy victory for the Patriots. Their conclusion is: A leopard doesn’t change its spots (New England has bent and broken the rules before under their current coach) and they will get a minor punishment that fits the otherwise ignorable infraction.

Chapter closed.

But for those who rooted for their opponents, The Indianapolis Colts, that conclusion rings hollow. If there had been an unfair advantage this would have started in the initial plays of the game. The Patriot’s quarterback Brady would have gained confidence (as would his team) seeing progress and this would reinforce success as the team began well pulling out to an early lead. Meanwhile, on the other sideline, Andrew Luck and his team would be taking a turn for the worse as passes are dropped or inaccurate. Confidence drops. Then panic sets in as scoring appears impossible, and will not be enough to catch up.

Seen in this light, the lopsided final score does not diminish the rule breaking. In fact it may justify serious and meaningful punishment for the cheating. In financial terms, the cheating was “material”. The reason it is “material” is because it had serious psychological weight. The psychological weight comes from the impact on the confidence of the psychology of both teams. One positive (Patriots), the other negative (Colts).

All of us have experienced a situation like the Colts find themselves in after the game – the winners cheated. On many levels this never feels fair.

We react viscerally when a situation is not just –

the sibling who gets preferential treatment,
the teacher who changes grades for a class pet,
the charmer who gets a warning and not a ticket for speeding,
the player who gets cut because she’s not the right ethnicity.
The reason we react viscerally is we are biologically wired for equality. We know, and are vigilant for, justice. And we know when there is injustice.

What does this visceral response look like? See for yourself:

This video of two monkeys being rewarded for completing a task is rapidly becoming a famous video clip in the behavioral sciences. One monkey gets a grape (sweeter and preferred) the other gets a cucumber (not sweet, not preferred) for completion of the same task. The result, as you can see, is obvious outrage. The game is rigged against her.

The task is the same and the monkeys know each other. Yet one monkey gets a sweeter reward. It is like our jobs. Seriously.

You will hear the audience laugh, when you watch it (it is under 3 minutes long). But take the time and watch it again. It is not funny the second time. See yourself, one of your ancestors, or perhaps a close friend who has been a victim when the fix is in.

Notice these aspects as you watch:

The agitation of the monkey who was treated unfairly
The calm of the monkey who takes advantage of the outcomes
The increased agitation with a repetition of the unfair rewards
So, at this point, you should now see the monkey and football connection. There are other lessons to take, for example, from the beloved teacher or coach, or parent who has sat us down and told us “life is not fair”. It is an important lesson to learn as we have all been victims of the prejudice of someone in power. But that does not mean we do not give up on our ideals.

In a football game, the context is framed to be fair. So, our response to cheating is strong and it is normal. The capuchin monkey research shows this response has a basis in our animal instincts. This anger is not something “airy-fairy” or “soft” that is drummed up or imagined; our value of justice is part of us. It therefore matters how we handle issues of justice in the workplace and beyond.

The Man who fights for his ideals is the man who is alive.

Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote

In our text The ABCs of Behavioral Forensics we refer to the capuchin study as a evidence demonstrating why individuals switch their motivations from following the rules to cheating. We believe, the workplace is a context that is framed to be fair. Thus, in a context of cheating or unfairness, there is a fertile ground for resentment and retaliation. We note this has ties to Financial Fraud in our text, but it likely has ties to workplace sabotage (hacking, stealing) and also violence.

So, if you are a leader, and you have “P&L” responsibility, then people are watching you. I strongly recommend you reflect on these questions, as they relate to how your employees see you and leadership:

How does your organization “rig the game”?
How do employees show their agitation around injustice?
What risks do you take in ignoring their agitation/concerns?
Perceived injustice is one of many perception problems for the C-suite to manage. They should not feel they have to manage it alone. They ought to also consider: How well does middle management help in correcting misunderstandings? And relatedly, what perception of injustice does middle management have?

The workplace is not a football game. There are many different contexts at work, and some aspects are simply not fair. Performance reviews (formal and informal) are the most natural and frequent places for all levels of management to make these repairs. These conversations are essential requirements of work. Good listeners will uncover resentments. That is the beginning step of a repair.

These emotional responses of employees may seem trivial, “soft stuff”, but misunderstandings about perceived injustice is real. Those who ignore them miss the lessons learned by the NFL, a large successful organization, with Ray Rice and domestic violence, as well as lessons learned at Andersen and AIG in the recent past.

Join us for more insights into behavioral forensics (behind fraud and similar white collar crimes) from the authors of ABCs of Behavioral Forensics (Wiley, 2013): Sri Ramamoorti, Ph. D., Daven Morrison, M.D., and Joe Koletar, D.P.A., along with Vic Hartman, J.D.  These distinguished experts come from the disciplines of psychology, medicine, accounting, law, and law enforcement to explain and prevent fraud.  Because we are inspired to bring to light and address the fraud problems in today’s headlines, we encourage our readers to come back and revisit us regularly at

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