Monday, April 14, 2014

Compassionate Underachievers

In prior posts, here and here, I have happily shared the research of Prof.Adam Grant, a luminary in the field of management psychology. 

So, I am puzzled by his New York Times column about raising moral children. It is not, dare I say, up to his standards.

Reporting on the latest research, Grant explains that most parents around the world want their children to value kindness over achievement. Apparently, the world’s parents want their children to be compassionate underachievers.

I am puzzled to see moral character being defined as kindness toward others. Surely, charitable feelings are part of moral character, but they are certainly not all there is.

Besides, which is more moral: giving  people handouts or giving people jobs.

Both are moral acts. In order to create a business that employs more people you need to demonstrate character traits that go beyond kindness. You will need to pursue profit in the competitive marketplace.

And you will need to manifest sportsmanship, teamwork and the ability to follow rules. Shouldn’t a study of moral character recognize that achievement through competition involves the development of good character… including perseverance, discipline and confidence?

Grant himself has worked in these fields. He has made important contributions to the understanding of teamwork. Yet, here he seems to reduce moral character to the ability to feel empathy.

Shouldn’t he mention that a kind and compassionate competitor is far more likely to underachieve?

And what of the world’s Tiger Moms? Surely, they want their children to have good character, but the character traits that matter most to them are those that will make their children into successful, high-achievers.

For all I know the wish to see children become compassionate underachievers is a symptom of a culture in decline. The world’s rising cultures are trying to bring up their children to work hard, to persist in the face of adversity and to assume the mantle of responsible leadership.

The world’s declining cultures are teaching children how to be kind and to accept a second-class status.

I am also puzzled to see that Grant does not, in this presentation, distinguish between parents’ wishes for children of different genders. Do parents want their sons to be as kind and compassionate as their daughters? I think it extremely unlikely that parents fail to differentiate between sons and daughters.

If the surveys show that parents prefer kindness over success, does this describe their actions or is this what they are induced to tell researchers?

Also, in Grant’s article, mothers and fathers are lumped together as neutered “parents.” Do you believe that mothers and fathers want the same things for their children?

And then there are the definitions. Generosity is surely a good thing, but does it consist in giving charity to the needy or building a business that employs the unemployed?

And then Grant reports on some of the research about shame and guilt. These are the two moral emotions; they are presumably the sanctions that people feel when they do something wrong.

Grant notes that we often confuse shame and guilt. He then proves the point by quoting a number of supposedly important researchers who have completely confused shame and guilt.

Grant says this:

…  guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior. When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right.

True enough, guilt does involve an action. But, how is it possible that these thinkers have failed to notice that guilt attaches fundamentally to criminal actions, to actions that transgress laws.

Freud was one of the greatest proponents of guilt culture, He understood clearly that guilt feelings are based on an intention to commit crimes: incest and parricide.

Everyone but the researchers knows that the remedy for guilt is punishment. Thus guilt, as an emotion is a form of anxiety that anticipates punishment.

When you have committed a crime, you might be inclined to try to make things right, but guilt involves paying off a debt that you have contracted by breaking a law. You might pay off the debt by paying a fine, by going to prison or by doing penance. The court might be more lenient if  you show contrition, but no one escapes judgment for criminal actions by making it right.

Returning the ill-gotten gains might earn you less time in Dannemora, but the criminal justice system does not let people off because they have returned the money. People who get caught for insider trading are obliged to pay a fine that largely exceeds their ill-gotten gains, but they also do hard time.

When guilt motivates people to behave well, it does so by threatening to punish them for doing ill. Strictly speaking, guilt cultures use threats and intimidation to prevent people from breaking the rules.

Guilt does not inspire, it does not motivate. It keeps you from doing something wrong because you fear punishment.

Since the researchers do not understand guilt, one is not surprised to discover that they do not understand shame either.

Grant summarizes the conventional wisdom about shame:

Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person…. Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating: Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond either by lashing out at the target or escaping the situation altogether. 

Where to begin?

First, allow me to make a suggestion. Calling someone a “bad person” feels to me like a schoolyard taunt. It is childish and silly. It lacks seriousness. Adults should henceforth cease using it.

As you know, I have made a considerable effort, over many years, to define shame. Apparently, these researchers have not noticed. Nor have they noticed the work of a Ruth Benedict who understood the difference between shame and guilt well and clearly.

Were we to define the concept seriously, we would begin with the observation that shame is a negative emotion that universally involves the exposure of what are called, for that reason, the pudenda. By extension, shame involves exposing something that is best kept within the bounds of intimacy.

Shame is only secondarily about how you feel about yourself. Primarily, it is about how you look to other people. You can overcome your guilt feelings by doing penance, but the only way you can change the way other people see you is by developing a pattern of consistent good behavior. Even then….

The pain of shame involves the recognition that once someone sees you in an undignified posture, it is extremely difficult to erase that image from the other person's mind.

It does not make you “a bad person,” but it means that people will be more likely to see you as an irresponsible person, someone who does not take his social responsibilities seriously.

You overcome it by taking responsibility, by apologizing and by changing the way you conduct yourself.

Since the ability to cover the external genitalia is the most basic of social obligations, actions are shameful when someone fails to fulfill a social responsibility. Losing a war, dropping the ball, letting the team down, putting ego ahead of the group… none of these are crimes, none elicits guilt. All provoke shame… because they cause others to see you as lesser.

If we define our concepts strictly, we can say that those who use guilt to motivate lay down taboos and prohibitions and threaten those who would transgress. Guilt is really about—don’t do this, or else.

Those who use shame to motivate will tell children to act their age. Surely, this is not the most corrosive thing you can tell a child. It does not make the child a bad person.

A good parent will help a child to learn how to apologize, how to make amends and how to behave better in the future.

How do children learn to cultivate the image they present to others? How do they learn the importance of reputation?

Effectively, they learn it through role models. By my concept, the influence of role models demonstrates how shame cultures help people to build character.

Despite his regrettable talk about the need to produce more guilt in children, Grant also understands that children learn good behavior by observing those who evince it.

You do not learn how to do the right thing by being threatened with dire consequences for doing the wrong thing. You learn it by seeing someone else do the right thing and noting how he looks to you and to others. You then say to yourself that you want other people to see you in the same light.


Anonymous said...

You mean the good role models like the ones we have on television?

Brilliant post, Stuart. Everything is spot on.

The one thing I'd like to mention is the bit about kindness and underachieving. I don't hold them as mutually exclusive. Tiger Moms can be outwardly kind and gracious if they choose to. Ultimately, we're talking about what LOVE means. What is best for the child? Is it best to be "nice" and produce an underachieving kid who is terrified of the world and wants to stay home forever? Does it really take a "village," or can one amazing person really make a difference in the life of a child? Do we do our children any good by not holding them to their best? Is "kindness" mutually exclusive of discomfort? Is spoiling a child a form of "compassion?" Is it "mean" to refuse to give in to a child's fleeting emotions? Are children born into this world with a work ethic? Is a work ethic (a form of "commitment") necessary for achievement? If a work ethic is not innate, how is it built? Is a work ethic best for the child in the long run? Is a work ethic immediately pleasant?

No one is going to hate you for being "nice," but you're not going to be helping them in getting anywhere, either. Being "nice" is trite. It's safe. It's an inherently reactive posture... the nice person is giving in to the emotional state of the other person. It may be polite, which is fine, but it's not creative. The only way to achieve is to create, and that requires movement. Nice people don't ask you to move, they welcome you to do whatever is most immediately gratifying for you. After all, that's nice.

So what is kindness, and how does it relate to achievement?

Much has been made of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team and their "Miracle On Ice." Coach Herb Brooks was a notorious, intentional tyrant with his players... on purpose. He knew they could never win playing the stale, predictable North American style of hockey. They had to change their game entirely, and change is uncomfortable. He wasn't nice. He skated his team hard every practice. I'm sure this wasn't pleasant. But the team never went into the 3rd period with a lead the entire Olympics, but won all the games because of their superior conditioning. Their gold medal win was rated the greatest moment in the history of sport.

Grant may be a genius about teamwork. But sustainable achievement requires a different, and more sophisticated, sort of kindness: LOVE. And in the emotivism of our current culture, it is a difficult stand to take. And Brooks never got a medal. In light of our modern "sensibilities," I'm wondering if any of Brooks' players would go back and choose NOT to play for him because of the way he chose to lead. If they didn't play, and they didn't play his way, they wouldn't have a gold medal to show for it. But they do, and that's the result of a higher level of kindness, a true love that is conspicuously scarce in the world of young people today.


Jeff Dorsai said...

shame is a way of nudging you change your behavior ... guilt is punished, changed behavior or not ...
shame is a public display ... its very hard to feel shame if nobody knows what you did ... guilt on the other hand is personal ... nobody in the world may know what you did but you may still felling guilty about it ... in fact until someone else knows what you did you really won't feel shame ... shame comes from the way others view you ... guilty feelings come from within ...

Jocker said...

"which is more moral: giving people handouts or giving people jobs"

It depends on the intention. If you look only at external behavior and not paying attention to the intentions, you fail the Turing test ;)

Dennis said...

Here is my kind of passionate underachievers:

Stuart enjoy.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I certainly did; that was great ... thanks, Dennis.