Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why don’t we always live our values?

Paper we’re looking at: Addressing Discrepancies between Values and Behavior: The Motivating Effect of Reasons Gregory R. Maio Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom

You don’t have to look very far at all to find, for lack of a better word, hypocrisy. It’s sadly pretty common to see people who talk all day long about their cherished values, but who act VERY differently.

Why does this happen? Weren’t they raised right? Didn’t their parents instill proper values into them? Was it a failure, perhaps, of their church? Of the schools? Of a modern secular society which has abandoned its God fearing roots?

Thankfully, NO!

In fact, a careful reading of this paper might lead one to believe that it’s just the sort of attitudes expressed above that LEAD to “immoral” or “valueless” behavior.

Because for all the cries of “failure to instill proper values”, this paper seems to suggest that values that are instilled are basically meaningless. Instead, it’s only when we take the time to really think about & consider our values that they will have any sort of guiding impact on our behaviors.

This paper leads off with one of the most glaring and blatant discrepancies between “Values” and “Actions” – Namely, the US declaration of independence. How much further can you get from espoused values (what you say) and behavior than having slave owners who write: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I mean, WOW. Wow. So does that mean that the founding fathers were big lying sacks of … sugar?

Not according to this paper.

In fact, the authors propose that it’s the very “self-evident” nature of some beliefs that make them particularly meaningless in many contexts. Because they’re self evident, we don’t give them any deep thought; we don’t make a conscious decision of whether or not to accept the belief or the value. And that, it seems, is CRITICAL to having a belief shape behavior.

There’s a famous study done on seminary students (presumably, deeply religious people). They were scheduled to give a talk on a biblical passage. In some cases, the talk was to be on the parable of the good Samaritan, about a person who helps somebody obviously in need; in other cases, about another passage.

They split the group further – One group was manipulated so they thought they were going to be late, and the other was confident they’d have plenty of time before starting.

On the way to the location of their talk, each of the seminary students came across a man who was laying on the ground, obviously in pain, and obviously in need of help (Was he having a heart attack? Stroke?). So who stopped to help this man?

Did everybody stop, as we’d expect of people who were deeply religious, and so committed to helping others? The ones who’d just read & prepared a talk on helping others (the Good Samaritan groups)?

It turns out that the only factor that mattered was whether or not they thought they’d be late. Of the group that thought they were late, only 10% stopped to help the man obviously in need. Of the group that was on time, 63% stopped. It didn’t matter what talk they were giving – the only thing that mattered was whether they were late or not.

WOW. That’s a pretty cool experiment, isn’t it? But it’s also pretty chilling in its findings – Because it suggests that something as simple as being a couple minutes late for a talk can completely overthrow the “self evident” belief that it’s right & good to help somebody in need.

[As a side note, it also shows that the people who were late & giving the good Samaritan talk didn’t think too opportunistically when they saw the man who needed help – otherwise, they’d have realized that this would make an EXCELLENT opener for their talk…]

The authors point out that most of our “Values Education” comes in the form of All or None statements when we’re kids. “Treat people fairly.” “Be honest.” “Share with others.”

And most kids who are taught those values will say “I know honesty is right. I know treating others fairly is right.”

Most of those kids will grow up into adults who feel VERY STRONGLY that honesty is right. They’ll teach their kids. But they’ll probably also tell a pan-handler that they have no change to spare. Or tell their wife that no, those jeans do not make her look fat.

So where does this disconnect come from? How can somebody who feels passionately about something act in ways that flat out contradict their beliefs?

The long and short of it is this: If the ONLY reason we hold a value is because we swallowed it as a child, without thinking through it logically or really DECIDING if we wanted it, then when it comes time to put that value to the test, all we have is a rather shallow reason to follow the value.

Here’s an example they used in the paper: What if you’re solicited for a charitable donation, by somebody who is rude, at a time when you’re worried about a lot of bills?

Well, chances are, you can think of a lot more reasons to NOT make a contribution – And if the only reason you value “Helping the less fortunate” is that it’s something you were taught as a child, it’s probably pretty easy to convince yourself that not giving is the better decision. You had solid reasons NOT to give, and only a hollow, almost meaningless reason to give.

It really shouldn’t be a HUGE surprise – when we think about our values, when we debate about them, when we have to defend them, when we try to convince skeptical others that the values are “right”, we’re going to be a lot more engaged with them. We’re going to anticipate potential failure points, and determine how we’ll behave when they come up.

Or, in the words of the paper:

“We believe that generating reasons for a value motivates provalue behavior because individuals become convinced that the value is “rational” and not just ideological. That is, generating reasons for a value provides concrete examples of why behaving consistently with the value is sensible and justified. Thus, when situational forces work against provalue behavior, people become able to retrieve concrete information in addition to their vague feelings about the value. In this manner, the (new) concrete information helps to make the value a more compelling guide for behavior.”

Now, I need to clarify something here – This study isn’t saying that all values or beliefs we hold are rationally or logically sound. Far from it. It’s not the inherent logic of the values that we cherish – it’s the fact that there is SOME REASON for the value. The reason doesn’t have to make sense. But if we can think of 10 reasons to live a certain value, even if the reasons aren’t linked to the value in any sort of empirical way, that value will still be a lot stronger than an ideological feeling that the value is “right.”

Okay - so what does all this mean to you and me?

Quite simply, it means that if we want to consider ourselves as people who have strong values, or who live our values, then we NEED to take time to really THINK about those values.

Why do we value honesty? When would we be tempted to lie? What's the effect of compromising on our values when it's convenient?

There's a very old question in philosophy which I'm going to butcher here: "How would you design a society, if you had no idea where you'd end up in it? Would you want it to be free-market capitalist, communist, socialist? Would you want it to be a strictly democratic society, where the will of 50.01% could trample the other 49.99? What rules would you put into place, if you didn't know whether you'd be a beggar or a king in that society?"

Of course, the point is to ask "What is fair?" But it's also a WONDERFUL exercise in looking at things we take for granted in a new light. So I'm going to pose the question for you - Which values would you choose to have, if you knew that you could never let them slip?

What rules would you set for yourself to follow those values, if you knew you ALWAYS had to follow them?

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