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.