The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Epley’

Holier Than Thou

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 6, 2009

jesus-loves-youBenedict Carey had a great piece in the New York Times this week, “Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness.”  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Most people are adamant: They would never do it. Ever. Never deliberately inflict pain on another person, just to obtain information. Ever artificially inflate the value of some financial product, just to take advantage of others’ ignorance. Certainly never, ever become a deadbeat and accept a government bailout.

They speak only for themselves, of course. As for others, well, turn on the news: shady bankers, savage interrogators and deadbeats are everywhere.

* * *

“Well, they gave me this award — the administration did — and I’d sworn I would never take anything from them. But of course there I was, up on stage accepting it.”

In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes — to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.

But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own. Culture, religious belief and experience all help shape a person’s sense of moral standing in relation to others, psychologists say, and new research is helping to clarify when such feelings of superiority are helpful and when they are self-defeating.

“The message in this work is not that you should rid yourself of moral indignation; sometimes that’s appropriate,” said David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “But the point is that many types of behavior are driven far more by the situation than by the force of personality. What someone else did in that situation is a very strong warning about what you yourself would do.”

One way to test whether people live up to their virtuous self-image is to set them up. In one study, for example, 251 Cornell students predicted how likely they would be to buy a daffodil at Daffodil Days, a four-day campus event to benefit the American Cancer Society. Sure enough, 83 percent predicted that they would buy at least one flower but that just 56 percent of their peers would.

Five weeks later, during the event, the researchers found that only 43 percent of the same students actually bought a daffodil. In other experiments, researchers have found that people similarly overestimate their willingness to do what’s morally right, whether to give to charity, vote or cooperate with a stranger. In the end, their less generous predictions about peers’ behavior tend to be dead-on accurate — for themselves as well as others in the study.

“The gap between how I think I’ll behave and how I actually behave is a function of how well I simulate the situation, and our simulations are guided by our intentions,” said Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and a co-author, with Dr. Dunning, in many of these experiments.

“The problem with these holier-than-thou assessments is not only that we overestimate how we would have behaved,” Dr. Epley said. “It’s also that we blame every crisis or scandal on failure of character — you know, if we just fire all the immoral Wall Street bankers and replace them with moral ones, we’ll solve the problem.”

* * *

One practice that can potentially temper feelings of moral superiority is religion. All major faiths emphasize the value of being humble and the perils of hubris. “In humility count others as better than yourself,” St. Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians.

Yet for some people, religion appears to amplify the instinct to feel like a moral beacon. In a 2002 study, researchers at Baylor University in Texas and Simpson University in California evaluated the religious commitment of 249 students, 80 percent of whom were members of a church.

* * *

You can read the entire article here.  To read a few related Situationist posts, see “Self-Serving Biases,” “Denial,”The Situation of Lying,” “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me),” “Um, I don’t make misteaks . . . ,” and “Predictably Irrational.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Emotions, Morality, Naive Cynicism, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Faith in God or Science

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2008

God versus ScienceFrom Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor for University of Illinois News Bureau:

* * *

A person’s unconscious attitudes toward science and God may be fundamentally opposed, researchers report, depending on how religion and science are used to answer “ultimate” questions such as how the universe began or the origin of life.

What’s more, those views can be manipulated, the researchers found. After using science or God to explain such important questions, most people display a preference for one and a neutral or even negative attitude toward the other. This effect appears to be independent of a person’s religious background or views, says University of Illinois psychology professor Jesse Preston, who led the research.

The study[, titled "Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations"] appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Preston and her colleague, Nicholas Epley, of the University of Chicago, wanted to explore how information about science influences a belief in God, and how religious teaching can also cause people to doubt certain scientific theories.

“As far as I know, no one has looked experimentally at an opposition between belief in science and religion,” Preston said.

“It seemed to me that both science and religion as systems were very good at explaining a lot, accounting for a lot of the information that we have in our environment,” she said. “But if they are both ultimate explanations, at some point they have to conflict with each another because they can’t possibly both explain everything.”

The researchers conducted two experiments designed to manipulate how well science or God can be used as explanations. In the first, 129 volunteers read short summaries of the Big Bang theory and the “Primordial Soup Hypothesis,” a scientific theory of the origin of life. Half then read a statement that said that the theories were strong and supported by the data. The other half read that the theories “raised more questions than they answered.”

In the second experiment, which involved 27 undergraduate students, half of the study subjects had to “list six things that you think God can explain.” The others were asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God.”

All the subjects were then required to quickly categorize various words as positive or negative on a computer.

“What they didn’t realize was that they were being subliminally primed immediately before each word,” Preston said. “So right before the word ‘awful’ came up on the screen, for example, there was a 15-millisecond flash of either ‘God’ or ‘science’ or a control word.”

A 15-millisecond visual cue is too brief to register in the conscious mind, but the brief word flash did have an effect. Those who had read statements emphasizing the explanatory power of science prior to the test were able to categorize positive words appearing just after the word, “science,” more quickly than those who had read statements critical of the scientific theories.

Those who were asked to use God as an ultimate explanation for various phenomena displayed a more positive association with God and a much more negative association with science than those directed to list other things that can explain God, the researchers found. Similarly, those who read the statement suggesting that the scientific theories were weak were extremely slow to identify negative words that appeared after they were primed with the word “God,” Preston said.

“It was like they didn’t want to say no to God,” she said.

“What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief,” she said. “When God isn’t being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events – especially the things that they list, which are life, the universe, free will, these big questions – then somehow science loses its value.”

“On the other hand, people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap,” she said.

The most obvious implication of the research is that “to be compatible, science and religion need to stick to their own territories, their own explanatory space,” Preston said. “However, religion and science have never been able to do that, so to me this suggests that the debate is going to go on. It’s never going to be settled.”

* * *

To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Market’s Personality: Dispositionalizing Situational Characters,” “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “With God on Our Side . . .,” and “The Blame Frame - Abstract.”

* * *

These helpful suggestions from a reader:  “Ms. Yates’ article would have been clearer if a) it had explicitly described the evaluation task as classifying a positive or negative word  as positive or negative, b) it had mentioned that those asked to “list six things that you think can explain or influence God” were a control group.  Without these clarifications, a layperson attempting to analyze the argument could quickly become confused, especially when trying to leap from the experiment as described to the quoted conclusions of Dr. Preston.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Life | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

The Market’s Personality: Dispositionalizing Situational Characters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 17, 2008

Joel Garreau and Shankar Vedantam have a nice article, “Dealing with Scary Mr. Market,” in Tuesday’s Washington Post about the human tendency to see human tendencies in non-humans.  The inclination to anthropomorphize is, in our view, better understood as another example of the inclination to dispositionalize — a misleading bias even when directed at the human animal.

Here are some excerpts from the article.

* * *

A rough beast prowled yesterday. If you read the business press, the market woke up with “jitters” after playing “a game of chicken.” It wound up suffering from “dizziness,” recoiling from a “campfire” possibly turning into a “forest fire,” or a destructive “tsunami.”

Really?

The market has a personality? Intentionality? A psychology? It can save us with transcendent behavior or ruin us like a demon?

What’s up with the way we anthropomorphize markets — the way we tell stories about them as if they are creatures with minds of their own?

“We do it for everything. We see clouds in skies and we can’t help but see patterns,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke and the author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.”

“We did a study in which we had random shapes on a computer screen bouncing around. Within two minutes, people had stories. The circle was evil and was chasing the little triangle, eating him up. Some other shape was protecting him. It’s incredibly natural for us to do it,” Ariely says. “We want to see causality. We want to understand the world. We want to see order. If things are just random, it’s not comfortable. We find patterns when there are no patterns. We’re really, really good at this. It’s important to our psychological well-being. If we thought we had no control and no understanding of what’s happening, it would be very tough.”

Making amorphous forces into characters we can grapple with has a long history. The Greeks made the idea of wisdom into the goddess Athena. To this day, we name our storms: Hanna, Ike.

Our markets, in turn, have invisible hands, bulls and bears, even “animal spirits,” as John Maynard Keynes in 1936 called the optimism or pessimism that can drive economics.

* * *

The greater the unpredictability of a system, the more likely people are to ascribe volitional qualities to it, says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.

Rocks or billiard balls don’t move unpredictably. But if a billiard ball were suddenly to move on its own, we no longer would have an explanation for what we are seeing and would ascribe intentionality to the ball.

Epley has also found that people are more likely to anthropomorphize when they are feeling lonely. It is as though seeing humanlike qualities in inanimate objects and systems can give us a sense of social connection.

* * *

“In the same way being deprived of food makes you hungry, and eating makes you feel better, so, too, when you are deprived of predictability and social connection, anthropomorphism can be satisfying,” Epley says.

“The most impressive aspects of the human brain involve making sense of our social environment,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s natural when we confront the inherently incomprehensible. We often talk about countries as if they are individuals.

* * *

In an unusual set of experiments published earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Columbia University business school professor Michael Morris showed that up markets are more likely to be given human characteristics than crashes.

We have the Dow “fall like a brick” but “climb to a new high.” You see the financial markets “drop off a cliff” — an inanimate object moving as a result of gravity — but “recovering lost ground.”

“There is a lot of evidence that our brains categorize something as animate or alive to the extent it moves in ways that a physical object can’t,” Morris says. “One cue that something is alive is if it moves uphill. Rocks never roll uphill. If you see something rolling uphill, you make an ontological judgment that the thing is alive.”

Morris found that anthropomorphizing markets has serious risks. Volunteers who heard market movements described in human terms were more likely than those given inanimate descriptions to believe that market trends were likely to continue.

* * *

To read the entire article, click here.  For a related Situationist post, see “Seeing Faces.”  Situationist contributors, Jon Hanson and Michael McCann argue in their forthcoming article “Situationist Torts” (downloadable here) that the tendency to dispositionalize situational characters distorts our understandings of everything from people to law and from legal theory to legal pedagogy.

Posted in Choice Myth, Illusions, Life, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 857 other followers

%d bloggers like this: