Data: human goodness

On the subject of things being true, I thought I’d throw out a few of those odd things, data. As in, bits of information which scientists have produced through experiments and which, though open to different interpretations, are fairly well-established as results. In fact, I’d talk a bit about the ways that my political view relate to data of this sort.

The particular topic I wanted to discuss was ‘human nature’. Different sorts of assumptions about what the human animal is can support different sorts of political views (though not in any uncomplicated way). For example, there’s something called ‘human perfectibility’ which you hear about occasionally. Apparently conservatives, being realistic and wise, don’t believe in it, and apparently revolutionaries and lefties like me do.

Now I have interest in putting any meaning into such a pretentious phrase, but I think there’s a germ of truth there. A common…’style of thinking’…on the left, with which I very much align myself, regards humans 1) as fairly malleable, and 2) optimistically. Now of course both of these admit of degrees, and it’s possible to go too far with either. But I would say that, relative to the average view, I regard the human animal both as one that is quite plastic and changeable, and as one which is in a very vague sense I’ll put more meat into later, ‘inherently good’.

What I want to explain now is how this belief of mine is nourished by the little I know of social psychology.

So on that first point, I would point to various experiments that showed how people can behave in surprising ways when put into certain situations. Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments and Philip Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment are two examples. So too are experiments showing stereotype threat, groupthink and the bystander effect.

Note especially that in Milgram’s experiment, the percentage of people who would deliver (what they thought was) a possibly-lethal shock to an unwilling victim could be manipulated hugely. It could be pushed up to 90% if an actor pretending to be a fellow participant obeyed instructions, and be brought down to 10% if an actor pretending to be a fellow participant disobeyed instructions. It was at 65% when a respected authority figure forcefully asserted the need to continue, and 0% when the participant had to decide on a shock level for themselves.

Related to this is the data suggesting that ‘people’ (i.e. the western psychology students most commonly tested) are in general disposed to over-estimate personal variables and under-estimate situational variables – rather than properly looking at how someone’s situation led them to act a certain way, we content ourselves with deciding that they are ‘the sort of person who does that’, giving them some explanatory adjective like ‘crazy’, ‘lazy’, or ‘aggressive’.

This relates, of course, to my post a couple of days back about the phrase “I can see why…” being offered as something that might be surprising or significant (rather than just noting your full understanding of what happened).

What all this adds up to, in my view, is evidence that on the whole, the typical way that we look at things is to falsely prioritise personal failings and strengths, while downplaying the explanatory role of situations. So to correct this bias, we should try to focus on situations, on structures, on systemic factors, and be reluctant to explain things in purely personal terms (though obviously willing to do so if appropriate).

In particular, it warns us against thinking that there are good people and bad people, and that as long as you’re around the good people they won’t do anything bad. Everyone’s both.

The second point I mentioned was about ‘optimism’. I think that, in a certain sense, we can ‘trust’ people – if they are allowed the general conditions of wellbeing, they will behave well. This contrasts with the attitude that sometimes emerges, either in regard to all people or just to certain disliked groups, that unless they are controlled and hemmed in, they will act destructively and irresponsibly.

So do I have much in the way of evidence for this? Well, since in both cases the claims are very conditional, very much ‘if treated in such and such a way, people will tend to act iin such and such a way’, the important sort of data to look at is that which shows relationships – not that people are in any given case nice or nasty, but that small changes niceness and nastiness correlate with small changes in some other variable.

So what data of such a kind are available? Well, one finding is that when people are in a good mood, they are more helpful, more likely to go out of their way to benefit someone else. In particular, it’s interesting to note a third factor that seems to be involved: in experiments, not only do the subjects put into a ‘good’ mood by being given some small reward or praise respond more often when they see somebody in distress, they remember more details about that person and their situation. That is, they notice more – their attention is directed outwards, onto other people and their environment.

There’s also some evidence showing a negative link between altruism and hierarchy. Experiments using negotiation games that allow us to roughly measure ‘generosity’ vs. ‘selfishness’ found that when a team’s winnings were split evenly among its members, they tended to be more generous, and when the members competed to get into a position to determine the split of winnings between team members, they tended to be more selfish (an effect seen more strongly with men).

Related to this is the observation that contact between members of different groups does the most to reduce prejudice when that contact is directly interpersonal and, crucially, when the participants are of equal status. So again, people like each other more when their relationships are generally equal ones.

I said earlier I would clarify what I meant by ‘inherently good’. It’s not at all clear what ‘inherently’ means here, given that nobody can grow up without being ‘altered’ by their environment, but I think the best I can do is the idea that people’s helpful and noble sides, the sides which are in good faith conerned with the rest of the world and interested in it, don’t require anything specific to be expressed, but do require specific problems, training, or relationships to repress them. Of course such a view isn’t conclusively shown by a collection of random findings, but it’s the best definition I could come up with.

Now of course there are millions of findings out there, because people are complicated. And no doubt people will point out some results that point the other way. I’m not trying to offer a conclusive proof of anything, just explain how it is that, holding certain views, I find them more verified than falsified when I look at what experiments have managed to show.

One Response to “Data: human goodness”

  1. links for 2009-06-11 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] Data: human goodness « Directionless Bones […]


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