Wednesday, August 1, 2012


In previous posts (starting here), I talked about con artists and social manipulators.  I'd like to elaborate on one of the types of con artists that are listed in Gavin DeBecker's book, The Gift of Fear.  The Loan Shark is someone who does you a favor so that when s/he asks you for a return favor, you find it difficult, if not impossible, to refuse. 

Here's a hypothetical situation.  You are invited to participate in an event, and your expenses are paid by your host.  You had never met your host before, but during this event you got to know them a bit better and were not favorably impressed.  At the end of the event, your host approaches you and asks you to write a letter of support for a prestigious fellowship.   

Here's another hypothetical situation:  A colleague nominates you for a prestigious fellowship or award, which you receive.  A short time later, this person asks you to recommend them for the same award.  What do you do if you think they don't deserve it?  If you think they deserve it but resent being manipulated? 

Do you:

1. Agree and write a glowing recommendation because you owe them.

2. Agree and write a lukewarm recommendation because you suspect they will retaliate if you decline.

3. Decline and make up some lame excuse.

4. Decline and tell them exactly why.

If you find yourself in such circumstances, it's important first to recognize that you've been manipulated and that the people you are dealing with are not ethical.  In both situations, you've been deliberately put into their debt so that you cannot easily refuse their request; you know this because they've asked for a favor in return.  Even if you cannot satisfactorily extricate yourself from this situation, you will be forewarned regarding any future interactions (and avoid them like the plague). 

Reading the above options, some people will say that #4 is the only choice.  However, if you've ever been in such a situation and actually face-to-face with someone, you know it's difficult to actually decline such a request in person.  This is what the manipulator is counting on.  You've been backed into a corner and to fail to comply makes you the bad guy.  Some people, however, will feel that they do owe a debt and should reciprocate.  In some cultures, such reciprocity is not only common but expected.  Others may feel they have to do whatever it takes to protect themselves and pick #2.  There is no easy choice, which is why it's a dilemma.

It's also instructive to recognize that you stepped into this trap by accepting their support/nomination in the first place.  How do you distinguish between people who genuinely wish to help you and those who are looking for a way to help themselves? There may be few or no clues, especially if you have not had any extensive interactions with them previously.  One clue is how ambitious the other person is, especially in relation to their qualifications.  The greater the discrepancy, the greater the likelihood they use tactics such as loan-sharking to get their way.  It's wise to be cautious in accepting favors, especially if you do not know the other person well.

In the case of the manipulative host, you are actually not in their debt if you performed whatever the invitation entailed.  You've already reciprocated by showing up and doing whatever you were invited to dom whether it was to serve on an advisory panel, give an invited lecture, or collaborate on a project.  There should be no additional obligation to the person who invited you.  Consequently, you may accept/decline the request based on other criteria, such as whether you know them and their work well enough to make an informed recommendation.  If you decline, though, there is the likelihood that they will react badly.

In the other case, it's likely that the person who has to ask to be nominated is not qualified. Otherwise, you or someone else would think to nominate them without any prompting.  If they are not qualified, then you will have a very difficult time writing an honest letter of support.  If they do happen to be qualified for the award, do you then take into account the fact that they put you in their debt or do you just forget about it and write something based only on their qualifications? Again, there is no easy answer.

Such ethical dilemmas are not uncommon in science, and you may find yourself at some point in your career struggling to deal with similar situations. 

1 comment:

River Mud said...

I'd do the lukewarm nomination and just accept "whatever outcome" as the price for my foolishness at getting caught in the trap in the first place.

I've also used the "conflict of interest, I can't write it" thing. Many conservation awards ask that an employee not nominate their supervisor.