[Viewpoint] The zero-sum game at Ssangyong

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[Viewpoint] The zero-sum game at Ssangyong

A commander is leading 600 soldiers across an isolated battlefield. If the commander does nothing, the entire contingent will die. He is responsible for finding a safe way to retreat. Path A allows him to save 200 soldiers. Path B offers a one-third possibility that all 600 soldiers will be saved, but it also comes with a two-thirds possibility that no one will be saved. What will be his decision?

This is a slight variation on an experiment conducted by behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to study judgment and decision-making. In their research, 72 percent of the participants choice Path A, while the rest chose Path B.

Let s alter the question slightly.

In the same situation, the decision to go down Path A will kill 400 soldiers, while Path B still offers the one-third possibility of saving everyone and the two-thirds possibility of killing all 600. Only 22 percent chose A, while 78 percent chose B.

Logically, A and B are the same, but the people showed drastically different reactions depending on the way the question was expressed. The people chose to save 200 but didn t want to kill 400. In a life-and-death situation, the priority for the participants was saving lives, regardless of scientific logic. It is human nature to want to save as many people as possible.

Now let s answer a related question. A factory with 8,000 employees is about to become bankrupt. If nothing is done, the company will collapse and all 8,000 will lose their jobs. In this situation, the management has two choices. With Option A, 2,500 will lose their jobs, while Option B will save 5,500 jobs.

If the people react according to the outcome of the experiment, most of them will choose B. They will feel more compelled to choose the option of saving 5,500 than losing 2,500.

And yet, such a choice is still a view from the outside. While the outsiders may feel psychologically comforted by choosing B, it doesn t work that way for those directly involved. No matter what the choice will be, only 5,500 will stay and 2,500 will have to be fired.

As you may have guessed already, this is the story of Ssangyong Motors. The number of factory workers was an estimate, but the core of the problem is the same. Of those to be laid off, 1,800 have already decided to leave the company, but 600 are refusing to accept the decision and have started a protest, illegally occupying the factory.

Why are they continuing this hopeless fight?

From a third-party point of view, it s nonsense, since all the workers will have to lose their jobs if these employees continue their protest.

The real issue behind the pandemonium at Ssangyong is not how many will be laid of, but who will be laid off. Think back to the commander and his 600 soldiers. No mention is made about who will die and who will make it out safely. Now imagine the commander must choose who will die. If not enough people are willing to die, deciding who will be saved and who will not is an extremely difficult and cruel choice.

On a sinking ship, an unwritten law of the sea says that the elderly, women and children are placed on the lifeboats first while the captain and crew stay behind until the last moment.

For a company to recover, likewise, workers with the most competitive skills must be rescued first.

Still, a problem remains. If those laid off do not agree with the decision, a cruel battle for survival takes place among the workers who will be rescued and who will be fired. That s why the protesters at Ssangyong Motors have taken the extreme stance that we all have to die together.

When all die together, their fight becomes meaningless, so it s difficult to see what can be gained from the protest. Though the workers call it death, losing your job will not kill you. If they started the protest to live and to keep their jobs, the best choice for them would be to reach a compromise for as much compensation as it s possible for them to receive. If anyone encourages the protesters to fight to the death, they clearly do not have the workers best interests in mind.

The goal of the protest is survival. If the unthinkable happens, who will assume responsibility as the commander of these troops?


*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Jong-soo

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