Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Why practice?

From yesterday's NY Times:

You show up for an experiment and are told that you and a person arriving later will each have to do a different task on a computer. One job involves a fairly easy hunt through photos that will take just 10 minutes. The other task is a more tedious exercise in mental geometry that takes 45 minutes.

You get to decide how to divvy up the chores: either let a computer assign the tasks randomly, or make the assignments yourself. Either way, the other person will not know you had anything to do with the assignments.

Now, what is the fair way to divvy up the chores?

When the researchers posed this question in the abstract to people who were not involved in the tasks, everyone gave the same answer: It would be unfair to give yourself the easy job.

But when the researchers actually put another group of people in this situation, more than three-quarters of them took the easy job. Then, under subsequent questioning, they gave themselves high marks for acting fairly. The researchers call this moral hypocrisy because the people were absolving themselves of violating a widely held standard of fairness (even though they themselves hadn’t explicitly endorsed that standard beforehand).

A double standard of morality also emerged when other people were arbitrarily divided in two groups and given differently colored wristbands. They watched as one person, either from their group or from the other group, went through the exercise and assigned himself the easy job.

Even though the observers had no personal stake in the outcome — they knew they would not be stuck with the boring job — they were still biased. On average, they judged it to be unfair for someone in the other group to give himself the easy job, but they considered it fair when someone in their own group did the same thing.

“Anyone who is on ‘our team’ is excused for moral transgressions,” said Dr. DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University. “The importance of group cohesion, of any type, simply extends our moral radius for lenience. Basically, it’s a form of one person’s patriot is another’s terrorist.”

Now, I manage a group of people; and because of various checks and balances and contingent outcomes I do not, I assure you, "take the easy job for myself."

But I do recognize many tendencies in myself to excuse or overlook behavior I might j'accuse! in others.

The conditioned mind is really that small, but it can be eroded.

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