21.11.11

The Principle of Charity - The Taxi


In one of my favourite classes at INSEAD, we learnt about the risks of decision making. We studied how our interpretation of events can increase our propensity to make good decisions. A key determinant of how one interprets the behaviour of others is the "principle of charity" -  an attempt to interpret the behaviours of others in ways that maximize the reasonableness of those behaviours (ref: Neil Bearden - A Spotlight Mind)

I had an important appointment this morning and woke up in a great mood. The sun was beaming and I enjoyed a relaxing swim as I thought about how to negotiate with the person I was meeting. As I got dressed, I received a call to ask if we could move the meeting 30 minutes earlier. I agreed to get to the venue as quickly as possible as I did not want to reschedule. 

Those of you who know me well will be aware of my frugal nature. I prefer to jump on the MRT subway in Singapore rather than into a taxi. As I locked my front door, I decided to try and hail a taxi and save some time. I ran to the lobby of our condo and spotted a taxi approaching in the near distance. I ran to the side of the road, grabbing the attention of the taxi driver with a festival of flailing limbs. As I opened the shiny blue car door, I heard the unmistakable screech of a cursing young woman aggressively approach me....

"Are you joking me? You people living in the condo think you can just do whatever you want!"

I turned round to see a young and casually dressed woman running down the road towards me. She accused me of stealing her taxi in no uncertain language.  I was taken aback by her shouting as it was the first time I had seen a Singaporean be so aggressive in public. 

I calmly asked her what the problem was and explained that she had not been in the taxi queue that forms outside our condo building in the morning. She shouted that she was sick of rich condo-dwelling people walking around like they own the place (I decided not to point out that I am in fact a heavily debted student living in an overpriced condo and slightly beyond my means...!). I calmly explained to her that I had not seen her standing 30 meters down the road when I ran out of the building to grab the taxi. She continued to stare at me and curse the condo-dwelling taxi stealers that seemed to so regularly trouble her. 

I had a few seconds to decide what to do. I didn't want her to start her day thinking that a foreigner had stolen her taxi. I also didn't want her to continue to believe that the residents of our condo had formed a collusive plot to ensure that she could never get into a taxi as she pleased.  As another taxi approached in the distance, I turned to her and smiled. "Here you can take it. Have a nice day!" - it did not seem worth fighting with someone who was so angry.

As I got into my new taxi,  I thought about how the principle of charity applied here. My choice was to either argue with an aggressive young lady OR calmly listen to her complaint and validate it. Her choice was to assume I was another condo-dwelling taxi-stealer OR to believe that I genuinely had not seen her. I woke up in a good mood and did not want to start arguing or become agitated before my meeting. It felt good to let her take the taxi and to give her a smile as I left. 

I wonder how I would have reacted if I was running very late or if she had personally insulted me. Would I have given her the taxi if it had been raining and there were no other taxis in sight? I would like to think I would have done the same thing again but is that a little idealist? I will let you know if I encounter my little friend again in our pursuit for a blue taxi....! In the meantime, what do you think you would have done?