What We Can Learn from Illegal and Taboo Jobs

You’re working online as a freelancer, as well as going to school. You have a professionally done photograph and always get compliments on it. Your family is poor, and you live in a poor country, but online, you are able to compete and provide services to anyone in the world. You’ve just started, so you only have a few jobs under your belt. It’s difficult to compete with some of the more senior freelancers who’ve been doing it for a long time and have a large number of reviews and great ratings. Even still, a job you applied to last week, which appeared to be a perfect fit, could be in your hands. The client contacts you and says they’d like to schedule a video interview. You say sure, plan the time, and get ready for what could be a long-term project. When the interview finally starts, you do well in the initial questions. At what seemed to be the end of the interview, the client says, “You are great! There’s one more thing I’d like to ask. Would you mind changing into a swimsuit for me while I watch?” You are floored. You had not expected this at all. Before you hang up in frustration, the client says, “Look, I know this sounds crazy, but you can see my profile. I’ve done over $100,000 in expenses in the last month. I will pay you extremely well, and this is only a one-time thing. I’ll even pay you first.”

In another situation, you are in high school. You live with your grandmother, who is retired, two cousins, and a friend of the cousins in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Your cousins and the friend are clearly taking advantage of your grandmother. They also happen to be doing random drugs all the time. Your grandmother is very old and is starting to forget how to manage her social security money and pay rent, and there’s a threat of eviction. You try to get your cousins to pay something, but they don’t care. They say they will live with their friend if they have to. You have to get enough money to pay rent fast, or you all will be evicted. You think to yourself that it would take a month before you can get enough money, and by that time, we may get evicted. There’s one thing you bet the cousins would pay for in a heartbeat: drugs. Their dealer visited the house regularly and would chat with you every now and then. The dealer knew you weren’t into using, and when they found out about your financial situation, they asked if you wanted to be spotted a stash to try your hand at selling.

Situation + Normalization

Taboo and illegal jobs are jobs that people generally look down upon, but often, those in the professions somewhat ‘fall into’ the jobs. It’s not usually a grand plan that made them start down the path of these jobs. They aren’t usually thinking: “Hmm, this is a great, perfect plan.” It’s often more of a situational thing. For example, if all around us is drugs, then doing them or becoming a dealer isn’t a stretch at all, especially given the right situation; it’s the ‘norm.’

Now, this does *not* excuse anyone who hurts another, and there are those who seem to lack  ‘moral judgment.’ However, the right situation can call into question even the most developed ‘moral code.’ Some people say they would never steal, but have they ever been starving with a child? Others say they will never kill, but have they ever been to war? The unfortunate truth is this moral gray area challenges us all the time in less extreme examples and is a reason for societal norms, laws, and religions.

Confirmation Bias

Yet, we have to wonder, what is it that draws so many into these professions. Is it really easier or better to choose the taboo option if we accept the morality of it? In many cases, there is a good possibility that someone taking on a taboo job believes it to be the best option, but in reality, it simply isn’t. In our drug dealing example, the high school student needs to find a quick way out of their eviction situation. While dealing could be a quick win, there are so many other factors that could become a problem, and it could very easily become a horrible choice. If it is illegal, there’s the law, there’s the threat of theft or being attacked for product, the threat of getting into territory conflicts, and the threat of the supplier getting arrested. In fact, we could argue that getting evicted would be better. The high school student is a minor and would be assigned to social services. The grandparent is a senior citizen and could likely get senior housing at a discounted rate. The cousins would get kicked out and live with their friend.

Given the right normalized situation, it is often difficult to see possibilities. This is likely due to confirmation bias, among other logical fallacies. We look at how the drug dealer we know is doing fine and is clearly well off. We look at the thought that eviction would mean we would be on the street with our grandparent with no way to make ends meet. The dealer said it’s easy and they’ve never had a problem. All of these things confirm the decision to become a drug dealer, yet in reality, it is all biased reasoning.

Those working in low-income countries are subject to our freelancing example more often than may be realized by someone in a well-off country. For them, they only have to show a little skin or be extra nice online, and these rich clients will send money over. It is an easy way to make money, but again, their normalized situation has them in the confirmation bias spiral. While the situation of showing skin is easy, and making money from it is also easy, there are plenty of downsides. Clients are less common, less marketable skills are built, and it could be against the law or the policy of the freelancing organization, causing possible complications should anyone get reported. Entering a job with the caveat that skin may be shown and knowing these ramifications is a recipe for extortion in the future.

Accepting the Negative Possibilities

For an attractive person, it is easier than ever to make money and barely show any skin. And for dealers, savvy internet knowledge can make it similarly easy to make money selling drugs. There are tons of other taboo or illegal jobs out there, and for those who truly acknowledge and accept the negative possibilities of the ‘taboo profession,’ it can be a logical way to make money and incorporate into bigger plans. Or, if the taboo profession is of actual interest, then that is, of course, their prerogative.

Yet there are very, *very* few situations that are truly more logical than choosing a legal and non-taboo profession. Not to mention, there is another very important mental side effect to the situation.

Reinforced Learning

The mental cost of taking on taboo jobs can be extremely high; it is a negative outcome that is not typically accounted for. When we accept these taboo jobs, we are reinforcing the ideas and beliefs surrounding the possibilities of the situation. We are telling our brains, simply by making the choice, that this is ok – this is the best way. We are accepting the mental burden of taking on something that is not a societal norm and carrying that weight mentally. Every time we take on the job, we reinforce the choices and biases and normalize the situation. As such, we are slowly hardening and closing our minds to other possibilities, all the while becoming subject to more anxiety and negative emotions.

This happens in reverse as well. Those who have performed non-taboo jobs for long periods can’t even see the possibility of taking a taboo job or any reason they ever should or would. They can also become negatively biased toward those in taboo professions, labeling them as outcasts, or the ‘bad part’ of society. Confirmation bias and all these other issues noted are common in all walks of life.

The Message

If we look down upon those in taboo jobs, we need to check ourselves; none of us are life’s judge or jury. We may not fare well in similarly extreme life situations. For those in the taboo jobs, stay open to possibilities, always acknowledge and be able to spot non-taboo options. If we ever say it’s not possible, then we are likely in some sort of cognitive bias spiral; if we are not, then seek help. No one in the history of humanity has survived without the assistance of someone else at some point in time. And no matter what, never, ever give up.


Note, just to reiterate because it feels needed: This does *not* excuse anyone who hurts another, ever. Taboo and illegal work in our context are things that may be considered immoral but only refer to those who have no overt ill intent.



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