Thursday, December 28, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 15a

“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” - David Graeber

There was a study of businesses that went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The study showed that five years later, the companies that gave a good deal to their employees, such as profit sharing and human resources survived better than companies that treated their employees as expendable. You would think that if the practices of companies that survive end up spreading, then doing well by employees would simply spread on its own merits. But that’s not what happened. This is because there is a narrative that has become common which emphasises the negative facets of human behaviour.

We unconsciously and automatically learn motivations, preferences, and values from the surrounding culture and these learnings guide our actions. Once we get in the habit of thinking of ourselves in a particular way, we tend to interpret all the evidence we encounter to fit our preconceptions and assumptions. Almost two generations of human beings have been educated to think in terms of universal selfishness. “What’s in it for him/her/us?” is the question we have trained ourselves to ask first. We have convinced ourselves that we are best off designing systems as though we are selfish creatures. 

It seems like it’s always the jerks that are more successful than the “nice guys” in all areas of business, entertainment, and other fields. But being a jerk, or a narcissist is not the personality trait that makes for great success. It should also be remembered that there are a lot of jerks, narcissists and foul-mouthed people who are unsuccessful. There are a lot of very effective, successful people who have none of those maladies. If we want to avoid aggressive, self-centred behaviour, we need to avoid pushing the wrong psychological buttons. 

Most people have heard about placebos in the context of testing new medicines. Depending on a person’s beliefs, desires, and prior experiences, taking a placebo or experiencing any “sham” medical procedure including fake surgery can activate biological pathways in the body making the sham treatment work. However, the action and effectiveness of a placebo often depends entirely on how much faith a patient puts in a particular placebo or medical treatment. The more you believe it will work, the more it may actually work. 

Similarity, culture plays an important role in setting our beliefs and expectations which influence how we behave nd how we expect others to behave towards us. We should add positive emotions like empathy, joy, happiness, gratitude, euphoria, and hope among the cultural cues that are sent out. Hamlet said, 'Assume a virtue, if you have it not.' By 'assume a virtue', Hamlet does not mean 'pretend' but the very opposite: to pretend is to show. What he means is, ‘Adopt a virtue’ and act upon it, order your behaviour by it. It results in what is called the Pygmalion Effect - the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behaviour comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 In Cervantes’  novel Don Quixote, there is a tale about two good friends,  Lothario and Anselmo, who discuss the virtues of Anselmo’s wife, Camila. Despite having a wonderful marriage, Anselmo insists that his friend help him “prove” his wife’s chastity and virtue by attempting to seduce her. He says, ‘I can never value one who owes her virtue to lack of opportunity, rather than to a vigorous denial of an aggressive and persistent lover.’A shocked Lothario wisely points out how ridiculous this is, and tells Anselmo to be content. Anselmo insists further and finally convinces Lothario to help him. 

Anselmo then takes an out-of-town business trip in order to provide the opportunity for the plan. Lothario is initially hesitant but eventually falls in love with Camila. Camila is confused and frustrated with Lothario’s advances and tries her hardest to refuse them and convince her husband not to leave her alone with Lothario. However Anselmo doesn’t listen and  she eventually succumbs to Lothario’s advances. They lie to Anselmo and carry on an affair. Finally he wises up and Lothario and Camila are forced to flee together. All come to a bad end, in true Shakespearean fashion.

The three main characters seem to each have a “fatal flaw.” Anselmo, of course, is “recklessly curious” – never satisfied with the good in front of him, but discontented with no reason. It was his plan that started the downward spiral of the story. Lothario starts out with words of wisdom to his friend and attempts to flee the temptation before him. He does not trust his instincts. He does not flee the temptation as he should.  The story illustrates the fact that our thoughts result in actions in the real world that make our thoughts come true. The story is a metaphor that illustrates the fact that  if we view human nature through a negative lens, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Over the past couple of decades, scientists of many disciplines are uncovering the deep roots of human goodness. This research reveals that the good in us is just as intrinsic to our species as the bad. Empathy, gratitude, compassion, altruism, fairness, trust, and cooperation, once thought to be aberrations from the tooth-and-claw natural order of things, are now being revealed as core features of primate evolution. 

Lots of experimental work has shown that people actually cooperate more than is predicted by commonly held conceptions. In experiments about cooperative behaviour, there is admittedly a large minority of people — about 30% — who behave as though they are selfish. However, 50% consistently behave cooperatively. The remaining 20% are unpredictable, sometimes choosing to cooperate and other times refusing to do so. In no society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

In one experiment, for the same game, half the players were told that they were playing the Community Game and the other half were told that they were playing the Wall Street Game. The two groups were identical in all other respects. Yet, in the Community Game group, 70% started out playing cooperatively and continued to do so throughout the experiment. In the Wall Street Game group, the proportions were reversed: 70% of the players didn’t cooperate with one another. Thirty percent started out playing cooperatively but stopped when the others didn’t respond.

Thus just changing the framing of the games influenced 40% of the sample. The players who thought they were acting in a context that rewarded self-interest behaved in a manner consistent with that expectation; participants who felt they were in a situation that demanded a prosocial attitude conformed to that scenario. In fact, we are willing to pay a penalty for an opportunity to punish people who appear to be breaking implicit rules of fairness in economic transactions.

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