Monday, January 6, 2014

Why Do We Do the Right Thing?

Why do people do the right thing? Are they afraid of the consequences of doing the wrong thing or do they actually enjoy doing the right thing?

To those who study motivation, the two are not the same.

When we, as a nation, decide that we want to have less bullying, we think of outlawing bullying. We believe that we can stop bullies by threatening them with dire punishment. When we, as a nation, decide that we want less violence against women we pass a Violence Against Women Act and feel that we have done something consequential to solve the problem.

As for the latter, I have often argued that the best way to decrease violence against women is to teach men— and perhaps even women— how to treat women with respect. All of those outmoded behaviors— called courtesy or chivalry or gentility, as you prefer— prescribed good male behavior toward women.

Nowadays all those everyday courtesies toward women are outmoded. So, men have responded by perfecting the arts of the pick up and the hook up.

In order to avoid being too polemical, we will examine some new research from cognitive neuroscience. Specifically, we will look at Robert Sapolsky’s column from Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, “What Drives Us to Do the Right Thing?”

Take some parents who are often late  picking up their children from preschool. Try to solve the problem by telling them that, henceforth, their tardiness will be penalized. If they are late the school will add a fine to their tuition bill.

The result is exactly the opposite of what was desired. The tardy parents are more, not less, likely to be late. It’s not just that the threat of penalties does not reduce the incidence of tardiness; it increases it.

Sapolsky offers a cogent explanation:

These paradoxical effects occur because introducing punishment re-categorizes the behavior. An act that once made you a mensch now makes you an administration toady. When an authoritarian hand imposes a floor of "at least," recipients of the edict often turn it into a ceiling of "at most." Show up late at the preschool before the era of fines and you were being inconsiderate. Show up late now and you're just incurring another preschool expense.

It turns out that doing the right thing voluntarily is very different from doing it to avoid punishment. 

From a slightly different angle, if you treat people like potential scofflaws they are more likely to fulfill your expectations and try to see what they can get away with. If you treat them like moral individuals who want to do the right thing they are more likely to act like moral individuals.

We are so thoroughly accustomed to think the worst, of ourselves and of nearly everyone else, that it feels strange to imagine that human beings are naturally inclined to do the right thing. We do not believe that people can enjoy acting virtuously and that they can pursue virtue for its own sake. We do not imagine that people can be trusted to do the right thing without having to be threatened with dire consequences for doing the wrong thing.

As a culture we see ourselves and our neighbors as naturally inclined to be abusive. We believe that we are afflicted with racist and sexist impulses, that we are greedy, degenerate hate-filled molesters. We believe that without any threats we would all act out our evil impulses.

And yet, the research shows that if we take people at their best and assume that they are inclined to behave well, they behave better than if we assume the worst.

Naturally, it takes more than trust. People will act well when they know the rules and the codes that constitute civility and respect.

It begin with the little things, like tardiness. Sapolsky is correct to emphasize the common courtesies of everyday behavior. If we want to correct everyone's chronic rudeness we will need to find a way to re-establish codes of good behavior. 


Anonymous said...

Per the last post on "Reverse Intelligence," today's elites (at all levels) are increasingly misanthropic. The core idea is that human beings are problems. Today's elites have no sense of humor because they are so certain of their superiority and power.

There's a reason today's most prized gift is analytical intelligence. If a given "system" doesn't work, its creator blames the problem on the the users... the people, or "those people." We see this in the surprise, shock and horror of too few young people entering the health insurance market. Such a response upsets the system. Someone "thought leader" will eventually come up with this novel idea that free riders must therefore be forced into exchanges so the system will work. It's ass-backwards. No one is taking responsibility for this kind of scheme. It's like "Frankenstein."

The self-help best seller "The Secret" was about how "thoughts become things." As our society rewards the creative, analytical and pragmatic faculties while reciting this mumbo-jumbo, we become more subjective, insular and materialistic. We value the things in our thoughts more than our fellow man. Man is viewed for his utility, not his intrinsic human dignity. We seek to control rather than connect. Yet the power of choice isn't always rational, nor does it always conform to the collective popular will. It means that you might choose something that others don't think is good for you, no matter how great they claim their alternative may be. That's life. Carry on. It's not about you.

We most often do the right thing because it is how we would want to be treated. Call it generosity as a projection, or altruism for its own sake. There are a lot of people out there nowadays who are worried about whether "outmoded" courtesies will earn them a sharp rebuke (feminists), a lawsuit (lawyers), ostracization (media), or get them fined (government). In the face of such uncertainty, the most rational choice is to do nothing. Maybe this explains the cultural degradation and malaise we have. In a weird sort of way, in economic terms, it's as though we're hoarding love, kindness and courtesy. You only hoard things when you're afraid they won't be valued fairly by others. Perhaps out there is an underground economy of love, a black market in kindness, and a secret society of courtesy. And that silent culture (the one you don't see on TV) keeps the world goin' round...

G.K. Chesterton, when asked what's wrong with the world, answered "I am." That kind of humility would go a long way. We're each not the center of the universe. This may seem like a "duh" comment, but watch the news tonight and you'll see what I mean.


Kath said...

It feels good to do the right thing.
I have found that during the hardest times being kind helps me feel connected. Both parties are reminded that they count for something.

Recruiting Animal said...

I see you as being biased by both your conservative and libertarian instincts on this one.

Off the cuff, I would not say that you have a high opinion of other people because your blog is usually complaining about them.

And, yet you hate government interference so it serves you to say that if you leave people to their own devices they will do the right thing.

For sure I would have believed that when I was younger. But I don't anymore though I found your quote from Sapolsky intriguing and would like to know more.

Recruiting Animal said...

Actually, the contradiction I pointed to might not exist. Although we think of American conservaties as law and order people, traditional conservativism believes in the power of tradition, not prescriptive law.