Monday, March 17, 2008
(Posted by Nancy Rapoport) There's a local scandal a'brewin' in Las Vegas, where several medical centers stand accused of having reused needles and single-use vials in an effort to cut costs--see, e.g., here. Unfortunately, the reuse of needles and vials carries with it the risk of such diseases as hepatitis C and HIV. Here in Las Vegas, several of us have been asking ourselves how health professionals could possibly have gone along with orders to reuse needles and vials, knowing the potential health risks involved. Now Jeff Skilling's lawyers are alleging that the Enron prosecutors deliberately withheld potentially exculpatory evidence during his trial (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here). If these allegations are true, why would the prosecutors do something so obviously dumb and ultimately counterproductive? Personally, I think it's because our parents were right: we tend to play follow-the-leader, especially when we're under pressure. Group norms are a lot more powerful than we tend to pretend that they are, and rules (ethics rules, caselaw, even the fear of sanctions) are not as powerful as deterrents as peer pressure is as a motivator for action. Peer pressure acts in the now, and deterrents are for a later time and place. If the suppression of exculpatory evidence was on as large a scale as Skilling's brief contends, then it wasn't a one-shot action by a rogue prosecutor; instead, it was a team effort to cheat the justice system. As long as we're talking about group behavior, let's throw a little cognitive dissonance into the mix as well: perhaps the prosecutors, having worked so hard on these prosecutions, really wanted to ensure the win, so they talked themselves into withholding exculpatory evidence "for the greater good" of getting a conviction. All of this is conjecture on my part. We don't know enough yet to know what really happened, although things look pretty bad for the prosecutors. My point is that people are good at fooling themselves into doing things that they know are wrong, and groups of people are very good at egging each other on to turn these individual bad decisions into new, and very bad, group norms. From those incrementally bad decisions, we get convictions that may get overturned and people walking into health care facilities hoping to get screened for illnesses and walking out with serious and incurable diseases. All for what? For the sake of saving short-term costs without thinking of the larger, long-term ones. Hey, wait: wasn't that the problem with Enron in the first place?