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Posts Tagged ‘Michael McCullough’

Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 6, 2010

From TempletonFoundation:

Why is revenge such a pervasive and destructive problem? Why is forgiveness so difficult? In “Beyond Revenge,” Michael E. McCullough argues that the key to creating a more forgiving world is to understand both the evolutionary forces that gave rise to these intimately human instincts and the social forces that activate them in our minds today. Drawing on the latest breakthroughs in the social and biological sciences, McCullough offers practical and often surprising advice for how individuals, social groups, and even nations might move beyond our deep penchant for revenge.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Book, Conflict, Emotions, Life, Morality, Video | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness)

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2008

Benedict Carey had an interesting piece last week in the New York Times, titled “Citizen Enforcers Take Aim.”  Here are some excerpts.

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The public urge for punishment that helped delay the passage of Washington’s economic rescue plan is more than a simple case of Wall Street loathing, according to scientists who study the psychology of forgiveness and retaliation. The fury is based in instincts that have had a protective and often stabilizing effect on communities throughout human history. Small, integrated groups in particular often contain members who will stand up and — often at significant risk to themselves — punish cheaters, liars and freeloaders.

Scientists debate how common these citizen enforcers are, and whether an urge to punish infractions amounts to an overall gain or loss, given that it is costly for both parties. But recent research suggests that in individuals, the fairness instinct is a highly variable psychological impulse, rising and falling in response to what is happening in the world. And there is strong evidence that it hardens in times of crisis and uncertainty, like the current one.

The catch in this highly sensitive system, most researchers agree, is that it most likely evolved to inoculate small groups against invasive rogues, and not to set right the excesses of a vast and wildly diverse community like the American economy. . . .

“The urge to take revenge or punish cheaters,” said Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of the book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct,” “is not a disease or toxin or sign that something has gone wrong. From the point of view of evolution, it’s not a problem but a solution.”

The downside of these instincts, Dr. McCullough added, “is that they often promote behavior that turns out to be spiteful in the long run.”

The urge to punish is not restricted to humans. . . .

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Given the choice, most people prefer that others do the hard work of enforcement, recent research has found. Scientists often study cooperation and punishment by having participants play one-on-one investment games in which each player chooses how much money to pony up in a joint investment, without knowing up front how much the other person will contribute. If both contribute a lot, they maximize their profits. If one snubs the other’s contribution, or “defects,” he or she is guaranteed a good profit and the other gets nothing.

Researchers adjust the costs and benefits of this game, as well as the number of times people play each other. And often another feature is added: an option to punish the other person, say, by spending a dollar to dock his or her earnings by two dollars.

In a series of such experiments, Jeffrey P. Carpenter and Peter Hans Matthews, economists at Middlebury College in Vermont, have found that depending on the costs of imposing penalties and the circumstances, 10 to 40 percent of people will act on their referee instincts.

“The urge to punish seems very strong,” Dr. Carpenter said. “Some people will spend money to punish even if it has no effect on them — if they’re watching players in another game and can penalize people. They’re inequality averse, it seems.” The researchers have found similar results across several cultures, including in Japan and Southeast Asia.

The conscious psychological motive for this behavior, regardless of its effect, is typically not deterrence but what some psychologists call just-deserts retribution. In a landmark 2002 study, psychologists at Princeton University had more than 1,000 participants evaluate vignettes describing various crimes and misdemeanors, and give sentencing recommendations. The psychologists found that people very carefully tailored their recommended sentences to the details of the infraction, its brutality and the record of the perpetrator. That is, people valued punishment for its own sake, as a measured consequence for behavior, not as a deterrent.

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The sense of betrayal Americans feel toward Wall Street, and the financial tumult’s effects on 401(k) accounts and small businesses, has certainly made many people less laissez-faire in their attitudes toward punishment, Dr. [Robert] Kurzban said. And there is nothing anonymous about the debates over the economic rescue plan, whether in Congress or at the water cooler: people are stating their views to an audience, and the collective fairness instinct is stoked to high heat.

Fortunately for the economy, researchers say, a strong countervailing psychological force is also at work: the instinct to forgive, and to cooperate. Punishments are balanced by peace offerings, and in fact researchers have come close to calculating the rough ratio most people employ.

Running thousands of computer variations of the investment game, scientists have found that the strategies that pay off the most are tipped toward cooperation.

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The upshot of all this, researchers say, is that human beings prefer cooperation, both in their individual makeup and in the makeup of their social groups. In a recent study, Dr. McCullough found that the urge for revenge against personal betrayals erodes in the same way some kinds of memory do: sharply in the first few weeks, slowly thereafter.

“The forgiveness instinct is every bit as wired in as the revenge instinct,” he said. “It seems that our minds work very hard to get away from resentment, if we can.”

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To read the entire article, click here.  For related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

Posted in Book, Emotions, Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 12, 2008

Last November, Benedict Carey of the New York Times penned an intriguing piece on the psychology of denial. As discussed by Carey, recent research suggests that denial helps form and cultivate close relationships, including those between spouses and siblings. We excerpt his piece below.

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Everyone is in denial about something; just try denying it and watch friends make a list. For Freud, denial was a defense against external realities that threaten the ego, and many psychologists today would argue that it can be a protective defense in the face of unbearable news, like a cancer diagnosis.

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[R]ecent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.

In this emerging view, social scientists see denial on a broader spectrum — from benign inattention to passive acknowledgment to full-blown, willful blindness — on the part of couples, social groups and organizations, as well as individuals. Seeing denial in this way, some scientists argue, helps clarify when it is wise to manage a difficult person or personal situation, and when it threatens to become a kind of infectious silent trance that can make hypocrites of otherwise forthright people.

“The closer you look, the more clearly you see that denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures,” said Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and the author of the coming book “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” “We really do want to be moral people, but the fact is that we cut corners to get individual advantage, and we rely on the room that denial gives us to get by, to wiggle out of speeding tickets, and to forgive others for doing the same.”

The capacity for denial appears to have evolved in part to offset early humans’ hypersensitivity to violations of trust. In small kin groups, identifying liars and two-faced cheats was a matter of survival. A few bad rumors could mean a loss of status or even expulsion from the group, a death sentence.

In a series of recent studies, a team of researchers led by Peter H. Kim of the University of Southern California and Donald L. Ferrin of the University of Buffalo, now at Singapore Management University, had groups of business students rate the trustworthiness of a job applicant after learning that the person had committed an infraction at a previous job. Participants watched a film of a job interview in which the applicant was confronted with the problem and either denied or apologized for it.

If the infraction was described as a mistake and the applicant apologized, viewers gave him the benefit of the doubt and said they would trust him with job responsibilities. But if the infraction was described as fraud and the person apologized, viewers’ trust evaporated — and even having evidence that he had been cleared of misconduct did not entirely restore that trust.

“We concluded there is this skewed incentive system,” Dr. Kim said. “If you are guilty of an integrity-based violation and you apologize, that hurts you more than if you are dishonest and deny it.”

The system is skewed precisely because the people we rely on and value are imperfect, like everyone else, and not nearly as moral or trustworthy as they expect others to be. If evidence of this weren’t abundant enough in everyday life, it came through sharply in a recent study led by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Ariely and two colleagues, Nina Mazar and On Amir, had 326 students take a multiple-choice general knowledge test, promising them payment for every correct answer. The students were instructed to transfer their answers, for the official tally, onto a form with color-in bubbles for each numbered question. But some of the students had the opportunity to cheat: they received bubble sheets with the correct answers seemingly inadvertently shaded in gray. Compared with the others, they changed about 20 percent of their answers, and a follow-up study demonstrated that they were unaware of the magnitude of their dishonesty.

“What we concluded is that good people can be dishonest up to the level where conscience kicks in,” said Dr. Ariely, author of the book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Force that Shape Our Decisions,” due out next year. “That essentially you can fool the conscience a little bit and make small transgressions without waking it up. It all goes under the radar because you are not paying that much attention.”

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For the rest of the piece, click here.

For a few related Situationist posts, see ” The Situation of Lying,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” “Um, I don’t make misteaks . . . ,” and “Predictably Irrational.”

Posted in Emotions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Revenge

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 6, 2008

McCullough’s Beyond Revenge CoverMichael McCullough has a fascinating and important new book: “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” Here’s a summary.

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For centuries, people have held several misconceptions about the nature of humanity’s desire for revenge and the human potential for forgiveness. First, from the earliest Greek tragedies to the modern mental health professions, revenge has been depicted as a disease or a poison that takes control of human minds and then plunges people into personal ruin and social chaos. Second, the capacity to forgive has been depicted as an “invention” that was deliberately created as a solution to the “problem” of revenge. Third, people have been led to believe that the key to making the world a more forgiving place is to help individual people to think, feel, and act differently than they currently do about the person, or people, who have harmed them—a view that fits very well with the modern emphasis on professional therapy and self-help as the solutions to people’s problems. Beyond Revenge takes these three assumptions to task because they are scientifically incorrect and because they prevent us from doing all we can to make the world a better place.

Using research from the social and biological sciences, interpreted through the lens of evolutionary theory, Beyond Revenge explains how modern humans’ propensity for revenge resulted from millions of years of evolution in which the capacity for revenge actually functioned as a solution to many of the social dilemmas that faced humans’ evolutionary ancestors, such as the problem of self-protection in the face of violence and the problem of encouraging cooperation among groups of unrelated individuals. As an evolutionary adaptation, the desire for revenge is a cross-cultural universal and it is responsive to a small set of social conditions. From the point of view of natural selection, revenge is only a problem for humans today because it was such an effective solution for our ancestors. Indeed, biologists have shown that humans are far from the only animals that use revenge to solve their social problems.

Second, Beyond Revenge demonstrates that humans’ capacity to forgive was not an invention or a discovery that people deliberately developed to control a runaway propensity for revenge, but rather, that it is an evolved feature of human nature that arose through the force of natural selection because it helped ancestral humans to solve certain adaptive social problems they encountered: conflicts of interest with their genetic relatives and with unrelated cooperation partners. Forgiveness, like revenge, is ubiquitous among the world’s human societies, and it appears to be a psychological process that we share in common with many other members of the animal kingdom. Recent scientific breakthroughs illustrate the factors that activate the “forgiveness instinct” in the minds of human beings, as well as in our closest living primate relatives.

Third, Beyond Revenge shows how these insights into the evolution and modern workings of the desire for revenge and the forgiveness instinct can be used to control human violence and destructiveness and to promote a more peaceful world. Rather than arguing that individual people must be changed in order to make the world a more forgiving place, Beyond Revenge argues that when people encounter the right sorts of social conditions, their tendencies to forgive are automatically activated. When people encounter offenders who are apologetic and contrite, and who attempt to make reparations for the damage they have caused, people are naturally inclined to forgive them. Likewise, when people live in societies in which their rights are protected, in which they are relatively safe from crime and victimization, and in which offenders are given incentives to apologize and compensate their victims, the desire for revenge is slaked and the forgiveness instinct is automatically activated. Beyond Revenge explains why. In an important chapter on religion, Beyond Revenge also explains exactly why religions have the capacity to encourage inspiring acts of forgiveness as well as shockingly destructive acts of vengeance.

Integrating insights from psychology, evolutionary biology, primatology, economics, and neuroscience, amply illustrated with examples from history, current events, popular culture, and everyday life, Beyond Revenge provides a balanced and realistic portrait of human nature, and it shows what people can do to make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place.

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For some related Situationist posts, see “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” “March Madness,” “Our Soldiers, Their Children: The Lasting Impact of the War in Iraq,” and “With God on Our Side . . ..”

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Posted in Book, Emotions, History | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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