Serpico effect

Serpico effect: When enough people are doing the wrong thing, if you try to go against them and show it to them, they become dangerous and will try to harm you instead.

This psychological bias in humans is named after Frank Serpico, who tried to bring light to police corruption in NYPD. In turn, his colleagues turned against him, and he got shot in the face during a drug arrest. The story feels too real and hard to believe, but it is true. There is even a movie called ‘Serpico’ on it (I have not watched it). As Charlie Munger said, “Powerful psychological forces at work for evil.” 

Although it is easy to write this off as ‘mob mentality’ or ‘group-think,’ this is deeper than that. Mobs get angry because there is some instigation involved. In the case of a Serpico, even after careful, deliberate thinking, the people doing wrong will still choose to retaliate. Try poking at any group of journalists, they will come in full swing at you. Our brains are wired to think territorially and driven by incentives. The moment these are threatened, all rationality goes out of the window.

Can we protect against such powerful forces of the human brain? I doubt it. Having the necessary guardrails to avoid such strong biases to creep can help. Being mindful of the second-order effects of any incentive structure can help. Having systems that keep cheating and morality in check is expensive but necessary to tame our brains, which are becoming increasingly unfit with technological progress. Such are wonders of our mind!