Tag Archives: TED

Altruism the key to worker productivity and advancement?

The New York Times Sunday magazine (3/31/13) has an interesting long read by Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” focusing on research by Wharton (U. Penn) workplace organization psychologist Adam Grant who believes, originally based on personal experience and later supported by hard-headed quant studies that altruism both motivates workers to work harder and helps them to advance.

Snippet:

“For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity. In some sense, he has built a career in professional motivation by trying to unpack the puzzle of his own success. He has always helped; he has always been productive. How, he has wondered for most of his professional life, does the interplay of those two factors work for everyone else?

“Organizational psychology has long concerned itself with how to design work so that people will enjoy it and want to keep doing it. Traditionally the thinking has been that employers should appeal to workers’ more obvious forms of self-interest: financial incentives, yes, but also work that is inherently interesting or offers the possibility for career advancement. Grant’s research, which has generated broad interest in the study of relationships at work and will be published for the first time for a popular audience in his new book, “Give and Take,” starts with a premise that turns the thinking behind those theories on its head. The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

At a university call center, Grant tried reinforcing the ties to needy students to motivate callers and tested its effectiveness.  He found in 6 repeated tests that even a 5 minute speech by a scholarship recipient now working for Teach for America and testifying how the scholarship had changed his life, on average meant that even a month later fundraisers spent 2.5x as much time on the phone, nearly doubled the number of calls made per hour, and average caller brought in 5x as much money per week.  These results were achieved even though workers used the same script and consciously discounted the impact of the student’s talk.   He and others have found other productivity benefits from “gratitude journals” or “thank you notes.”

“Over the years, Grant has followed up that study with other experiments testing his theories about prosocial motivation — the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback. In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases”; another read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.”

Grant in his forthcoming book divides the world of workers “divides the world into three categories: givers, matchers and takers. Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders.”

Grant says that the key to successful givers is being strategic about doing nice things for others — what he calls the “5 minute favor” and asking if you can add unique value to the person requesting your time, and if not, strategically connecting the asker with other givers or with matchers for whom you have done past favors.  One can easily imagine that if one is strategic about doing favors for others, social capital theory would suggest that one builds up an informal “favor bank” that as the askers move up in the world, put you in a much stronger position to request favors of others.  It increases his pool of willing collaborators and puts him in a larger web of information flows in an era where expertise and knowledge is often distributed.  It is interesting that the motivation for Grant at least in being a giver is not at all about advancement — for him it is the key to doing what he can to conquer mortality.  He endorses William James’ view that  ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’

Grant also notes that takers succeed in the short-term but don’t do as well over the long-term perhaps because others use online social networks to punish takers [see e.g., Matthew Feinberg, Joey T. Cheng and Robb Willer, “Gossip as an Effective and Low-Cost Form of Punishment“, Behavioral and Brain Science 25(1), Feb 2012.]

He talks about his experience with the University of Michigan fundraising call center about 4 minutes into the following video. One person had a depressing sign on his desk saying “Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit.  You get a warm feeling but no one else notices.”:

I wonder whether his strategy is equally effective for all social strata. Jean Rhodes and others found that post-Katrina low SES survivors  who were more connected with others suffered mental health losses in short-term because all their friends were making demands of them [discussed towards bottom of this blog post].  The workers, like Adam Grant, himself may be less surrounded by needy individuals and more likely to be providing favors to students who will go on to higher stations in life, but very interesting food for thought…

Read Susan Dominus “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

Read Adam Grant’s new book, “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” (April 2013)

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Internet showing you what they think you want, not what you need (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by antoonsfoobar

I recently saw an interesting TED talk by Eli Pariser on the next wave of cyberbalkanization.  [Read his fascinating new book “The Filter Bubble” here.]

Background: Marshall Van Alstyne predicted 15 years earlier that users would self-segregate on the net and choose to get exposed to ever more narrow communities of interest.

We’re now onto the “The Daily Me” 2.0.  Some news sites originally let users click on their interests a user could limit his/her news to say sports and entertainment news.  Cass Sunstein and Nicholas Negroponte predicted that it would lead to stronger news blinders and expose us to less and less common information, what they called “The Daily Me”.

Well, it turns out that users actually choose to subject themselves to more diversity in opinions and networks on the net than people predicted.

But the latest onslaught, what Eli Pariser calls “The Filter Bubble”, is more invidious.  More and more user sites (Facebook, Google Search, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, the Washington Post) now automatically tailor your stream of results, facebook feed, and news feed based on your past clicks, where you are sitting, what type of computer you use, what web browser you use, etc.

Unlike in the past, this is not “opt in” cyberbalkanization but automatic.  And since it happens behind-the-scenes, you can’t know what you’re not seeing.  One’s search of Tunisia on Google might not even tell you about the political uprising if you haven’t expressed interest in politics in the past.  Eric Schmidt of Google said “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

Pariser notes that we all have internal battles between our aspirational selves (who want greater diversity) and our current selves (who often want something easy to consume).  In most of our lives or Netflix queues we continually play out these battles with sometimes our aspirational selves winning out.  These filter bubbles edit out our aspirational selves when we need a mix of vegetables and dessert.  Pariser believes that the algorithmic gatekeepers need to show us things that are not only junk food but also things that are challenging, important and uncomfortable and present competing points of view. We need Internet ethics in the way that journalistic ethics were introduced in 1915 with transparency and a sense of civic responsibility and room for user control.

It’s an interesting talk and I clearly agree with Pariser that gatekeepers should be more transparent and allow user input to tweak our ratio of dessert to vegetables, to use his analogy.  But I think Pariser, in forecasting the degree of our Filter Bubble, misses out the fact that there are other sources of finding about news articles. Take Twitter retweets.  Even if my friends are not that diverse — and many of us will choose to “follow” people we don’t agree with — as long as one of the people I’m following has diverse views in his/her circle of followers and retweets their interesting posts, I get exposed to them.  Ditto with e-mail alerts by friends of interesting articles or social searches using Google.  We live in far more of a social world where information leads come from many other sources than Google searches or Yahoo News.  So let’s work on the automatic filters, but the sky is not falling just yet.

See “The Filter Bubble.” (Feb. 2011 TED talk)

David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” (REVIEW, UPDATED)

The Boston Globe reviews Brooks’ Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life: “The outward mind, according to Brooks, focuses on the power of the individual; the inner mind highlights the bonds among people. Those bonds have become frayed in recent decades, he argues, and need rebuilding if we are to thrive as individuals and as a society.

“ ‘The unconscious is impulsive, emotional, sensitive, and unpredictable. It has its shortcomings. It needs supervision. But it can be brilliant. It’s capable of processing blizzards of data and making daring creative leaps. Most of all, it is also wonderfully gregarious. Your unconscious, that inner extrovert, wants you to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing.’ ”  (Boston Globe)  Brooks suggests that the unconscious is more important to determining our actions than the conscious.

“Some groups are far better than others at inculcating functional norms and social skills. Children from disorganized, unstable communities have a much harder time acquiring the discipline to succeed in life. And a famous experiment conducted around 1970 demonstrated that the ability of 4-year-olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten for a time as a condition of receiving a second marshmallow was a very good predictor of success in life: ‘The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes had, 13 years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds. . . . Twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and 30 years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems.’ ” (NY Times)

The WSJ suggests that it is directionally correct (and that non-cognitive skills may be 75% of the action), but in fictionalizing research into its novels two characters (Erica and Harold), it strays from some of the strict limits of the underlying research.

In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks—as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn’t tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.  This is a chronic problem…[t]he first study on a topic is rarely the last word.

…The narrative [in The Social Animal] begins with Erica taking a job with a consulting firm of wonks who show off their big brains by citing their favorite equations and debating esoteric trivia at staff meetings. They hire mainly on the basis of intelligence but never develop lasting, profitable relationships with clients. Once Erica figures this out, she leaves to start her own company.

If this story is meant to illustrate a broader point, it must be that …[t]he brilliant are more likely than the average to be socially awkward. But…] in reality, tests of emotional intelligence correlate positively with IQ tests.

But Mr. Brooks makes an even bigger claim: “Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.” [Chabris notes that Brooks in relying on an argument made by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers that IQ attendance at Harvard or MIT can’t predict who will win Nobels, encounters problems that this research is based on] “tiny sample sizes, the shaky assumption that prize juries (and elite universities) make decisions based only on merit, and the focus on the tails of a distribution (here, the highest extremes of intelligence and academic achievement), which is the method guaranteed to tell you the least about the characteristics that matter across the whole range of human ability. To dismiss IQ testing as invalid because it can’t pick out the minuscule minority that will attain world-wide fame is to confuse a positive correlation with a perfect one. Only oracles have perfect records of prophecy, and surely no one desires a world in which IQ tests are that good.

…The research that Mr. Brooks minimizes or ignores does not, of course, prove that intelligence is the only relevant trait for success. A host of “noncognitive” skills, many of which Mr. Brooks explains well, are undoubtedly important. But there is no need to tear down intelligence in order to build up the rest.  Even if differences in intelligence explain 25% of the differences among people in how well they perform at work (a much better estimate than the low-ball 4% cited by Mr. Brooks), there is still three times as much territory left to be mapped out. Surely that’s plenty of space for researchers to investigate the role of social acumen, mindset, culture, self-control and much else. A thousand flowers can bloom.

See also David Brooks’ humorous TED talk on this topic, relating his talk to everything from politicians, to school reform, to financial reform, to the war in Iraq. He discusses why the rational world has trumped the social and emotional world at great cost.  He talks about how we are deeply social animals, and formed out of relationships with each other (mentioning the importance of “social capital.”)  To succeed in life, Brooks believes we need mindsight (empathy into what others are thinking), equipoise (serenity in reading our overconfidence and biases), metus (sensitivity to the physical environment), sympathy (ability to work within face-to-face groups through non-verbal communication), blending (a new fusion of two different ideas), and limerince (the ability to find moments of transcendence).

See Guardian article “What’s the big idea?: David Brooks’s theories on society were fashionable 200 years ago, he tells Stuart Jeffries. So why are British politicians such fans of his new book?

Designing games to save the world

WoW game screenshot - Flickr photo by wynter

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, notes that the amount of time that young people spend gaming is already large and predicted to become extraordinary.  500 million people (mainly youth) worldwide spend more time gaming than in school and this number is projected to grow to 1.5 billion in a decade.  These 500 million noticeably already game enough to make them experts by age 21, according to Gladwell’s Outliers book that focuses on the importance of accumulating 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso.

So rather than wag our fingers at gamers, we should recognize what is great about game playing and why they do it, and then try to channel these skills and energy into saving the world.

Why they do it?

McGonigal cites an economist’s belief that youth are making rational choices to spend more time in virtual worlds since they are better than the real world.  She notes that there is no unemployment in World of Warcraft and hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators.  Youth can at any time participate in a mission that is constantly at the verge of what they can accomplish and be part of an inspiring story.  They get Plus-1 intelligence and Plus-1 feedback on their quests.

What do youth get extremely good at through video games:

1) expressing urgent optimism

2) forming a tight social fabric.  McGonigal believes that it takes a lot of trust to play games with people (since others stay in the games until they end, play by the rules, etc.)  [I’m not sure how solid this basis of evidence is, although McGonigal has interesting anecdotes and alludes to research, of which I’m unsure how scientific it is.]

3) gamers are in such blissful productivity that they are happier working hard than relaxing.

4) gamers take on an adventure with epic meaning.  [She notes that the second biggest wiki in the world after Wikipedia is the World of Warcraft wiki with almost 80,000 articles, which 5 million people access monthly.]

What is great about it?

“Games make it easy to build stronger social bonds with our friends and family. Studies show that we like and trust someone better after we play a game with them — even if they beat us. And we’re more likely to help someone in real life after we’ve helped them in an online game. It’s no wonder that 40% of all user time on Facebook is spent playing social games. They’re a fast and reliable way to strengthen our connection with people we care about.” [note: not sure what studies she is referring to, although apparently in some of her own games she has clearly observed such behavior.  McGonigal has said elsewhere that “Thirty minutes of playing a co-op game changes for an entire week how cooperative we are in real life….Just ninety seconds of playing with an avatar can change your odds for success in a real-world situation for 24 hours….The science shows that it doesn’t matter where you get your positive emotions; if you feel a positive emotion it has the same impact on your health and happiness regardless of where it comes from.”] From “REVIEW — Be a Gamer, Save the World — Videogames make players feel like their best selves; Why not give them real problems to solve?” By Jane McGonigal (Wall St. Journal, January 22, 2011, p. C3)  [essay is adapted from “Reality Is Broken” by Jane McGonigal, Penguin Press, 2011. ]

Elsewhere McGonigal notes generally that “Studies [again not sure what studies she is referring to] show that cooperative gameplay lifts our mood longer, and strengthens our friendships more, than competing against each other.”  McGonigal also states “research shows that social ties are strengthened much more when we play games in the same room than when we play games together online.”

How to use it to save the world?

The key is to harness all the positive parts of gaming – concentration, motivation, hard work, inspiration — for positive ends. The challenge is not to ignore games but design games that make the real world as exciting as games and in the process give us knowledge and skills useful to solving real world problems.  She says that maybe we should spur developers by offering a “Nobel”-like Prize to the best invention of a game each year that helps solve a really important social problem.

Superpowers add up to superempowered, hopeful individuals.    The challenge is to convince gamers that they are also empowered to change the real world.  We need to make people’s rewards, feedback, motivation be as high in the real world.  We have to make the real world more like a game.

One reviewer skeptical of games (Catherine DeLange) noted that games are everywhere in our life and can be a force for good; “Before writing this review, for example, I went for a run. I was tired and felt like giving up after 30 minutes, but stuck it out for 45. Why? Because I knew when I got home I’d be docking my iPod with my computer and logging my run on a website called Nike Plus. The site not only tracks my progress and records my mood, but also lets me “level up” the more I run. Since I joined up, I’ve run 858 kilometres, so I’m classed as a green runner. When I hit 1000 km I’ll move up to blue, hopefully ahead of my running buddies who joined up with me. I know every extra step I run will get me further in this game.”

McGonigal has tried at least 6 games (World Without Oil; Superstruct; Evoke;  Cruel 2 b Kind;  Chorewars and Jane the Concussion Slayer — the latter to deal with a brain concussion from which she was recuperating).

She also recommends games that others have created.  The Extraordinaries provides players with a mission and instructions on how to solve it; the mission is tailored to the needs of a non-profit and the public like tracking and photographing life-saving defibrillators’ location.  The information is then uploaded to a First Aid Corps database, that tracks the location of publicly accessible defibrillators world-wide, in order to be available to help save lives.  Elude is a game to help caregivers understand what depression feels like: players complete the various game levels twice, the second made significantly harder to mirror the difficulties of achieving tasks while depressed.

1) World Without Oil: piloted in 2007 with 17,000 players.  Gamers are forced to challenge themselves to survive in a world without oil.  McGonigal claims that most players are actively continuing many of the oil-free skills they learned or invented in the game.

2) Superstruct: a supercomputer has determined that world is coming to an end and players have to invent the future of energy, future of food, health, security, social safety net.    8,000 gamers played for 8 weeks and came up with 500 out-of-the-box solutions to these problems.

3) Evoke with World Bank Institute (March 2010).  WBI invited folks in sub-Saharan Africa and in the developing world to partner together and test and develop their social entrepreneurship skills. Over 10 weeks, the gamers worked on 10 missions  addressing  issues like poverty, hunger, sustainable energy, water security, conflict, disaster relief, health care, education, and human rights. The stories were told in a graphic novel, that demanded local insight, sustainability, vision, and resourcefulness. WBI succeeded in attracting just under 20,000 young participants from over 130 countries. The collaboration among Evoke gamers in only 10 weeks led to more than 50 social enterprises being launched. “One example is this great project called Libraries Across Africa. The idea is basically a McDonalds of libraries that has money-making ventures (food, phone service) surrounding the library to make it self-supporting.

While McGonigal’s framing seems a bit pollyannish, for sure we should make lemonade of video games, even if we view them as lemons.  She notes that gamers are now gaming to escape from the real world. She observes that Herodotus said dice games were invented to distract Libyans from their famine; Libyans survived for 18 years, by eating one day and fasting the next all while distracted from their hunger by game playing.  Herodotus ultimately realized the famine was not ending so he directed the Libyans to play a final dice game and the winners were sent on an epic adventure to find a new place to live.  She notes that there is some genetic evidence that this is true: Etruscans appear to have left Libya to found Roman empire around this time.  McGonigal hopes and believes that we can empower young people to make an optimistic future come to pass.

See also earlier post on “Social Capital Games” where we discussed two of McGonigal’s efforts “Cruel 2 b kind” and “Chorewars.”

See also Gaming can make the world a better place (Jane McGonigal TED 2010 talk).

The Friendship Paradox: using social networks to predict spread of epidemics

Nick Christakis and James Fowler (whose research we’ve previously highlighted) is back with research that shows how one can easily use “sensors” in a network to track and get early warning regarding the spread of epidemics.

They took advantage of the “friendship paradox” to do so.  In any real-life network, our friends are more popular than we are.  [This is true mathematically in any group with some loners and some social butterflies.  If you poll members in the group about their friendships, far more of those friends who are reported are going to be the social butterflies.  If far more people reported friendships with the loners, they wouldn’t be loners.  See discussion here.]

Thus by asking random people in a network, in this case Harvard students, about their friends, researchers know that their friends are more centrally located in these networks.    Then one can track behavior among the random group and their friends, in this case the spread of H1N1 flu (swine flu) among 744 Harvard students in 2009.

Those more central in these networks (the “friend” group) got the flu a full 16-47 days earlier than the random group.  Thus, for public authorities, monitoring such a “friend” group could give one early indication of a spreading epidemic; they could serve as “canaries in the coal mine”.  If the process of spreading was person-to-person rather than being exposed to some impersonal information (via a website or a broadcast), one could also track the difference between a random group and a friend group to predict other more positive epidemics, like the spread of information, or the diffusion of a product, or a social norm.

We write in general on this blog about the positive benefits of social ties (social capital), but Fowler and Christakis’ study also shows you that having friends and being centrally located has its costs: in this case getting the flu faster.  [In some ways, this is analogous to Gladwell’s discussion in the Tipping Point of how Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen may be disproportionately influential in the spread of ideas through networks, although Fowler and Christakis are far more mathematical in identifying who these central folks are.]

The “friends group manifested the flu roughly two weeks prior to the random group using one method of detection, and a full 46 days prior to the epidemic peak using another method.

‘We think this may have significant implications for public health,’ said Christakis. ‘Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.’

‘If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now,’ said Fowler. ‘Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world – or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks.’

Christakis also notes that if you provided a random 30% in a population with immunity to a flu, you don’t protect the greater public, but if you took a random 30% of the population, asked them to name their friends, and then provided immunization to their friends, in a typical network the “friend” immunization strategy would achieve as high immunity protection for the entire network as giving 96% of the population immunity shots, but at less than 1/3 the cost.

The following video shows how the nodes that light up first (markers for getting the flu) are more central and far less likely to be at the periphery of the social network.  The red dots are people getting the flu; the yellow dots are friends of people with the flu and the size of the dot is proportional to how many of their friends have the flu.

Good summary of this research and its implications here: Nick Christakis TED talk (June 2010) – How social networks predict spread of flu.  Nick also discusses some of the implications of computational social science, which we’ve previously discussed here under the heading of digital traces.  Nick discusses how one could use data gathered from these networks (either passively or actively) to do things like predict recessions from patterns of fuel consumption by truckers, to communicate with drivers of a road of impending traffic jams ahead of them (by monitoring from cell phone users on the road ahead of them how rapidly they are changing cell phone towers) to asking those central in a mobile cellphone network (easily mapable today) to text their daily temperature (to monitor for impending flu epidemics).  Obviously these raise issues of privacy, which Nick does not discuss.

News release of study

Academic article in PLoS ONE

James Fowler on The Colbert Report discussing the book by Fowler and Christakis called Connected.


Nick Christakis presenting a talk at TED — The Hidden Influence of Social Networks. (February 2010).  In the talk he notes that while almost half of the variation in our number of friends is genetically-based (46%), that another equally large portion (47%) of whether your friends know each other is a function of whether your friends are the type that introduce (“knit”) their friends together or keep them apart (what they call “transitivity”).  About a third of whether you are in the center of social networks or not is genetically inherited.  Christakis believes that these social networks are critically important to transmitting ideas, and kindness, and information and goodness; and if society realized how valuable these networks were, we’d focus far more of our time, energy and resources into helping these networks to flourish.

Why we help others and what we think about those that do?

There have been two nice pieces recently on the helping instinct: “The moral instinct?” in the NYT magazine (by Harvard’s Steven Pinker) and a video talk by Daniel Goleman.

The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker notes that three individuals have done a lot of good: Mother Teresa (with all her work with the poor in India), Bill Gates (through his philanthropy around diseases and technology) and Norman Borlaug (who most people have never heard of but who has ushered in a green revolution in agricultural productivity that has saved a billion lives in the developing world). Pinker notes that our moral views of these individuals are clouded by how much we know about them and whether they are embued with a saint like halo in the case of Mother Teresa or Bill Gates’ profit-making motive. Our judgments ignore the fact that Mother Teresa often avocated suffering and treated people in harsh conditions: her missions offered “their sick patrons…plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.”
The article highlights how brain scanners, game theory, evolutionary biology and neuroscience are being used to understand how we make moral judgments.

Pnker notes that moral action requires a neural switch that forces us to classify actions as “immoral (‘killing is wrong’), rather than merely disagreeable (‘I hate brussels sprouts’), unfashionable (‘bell-bottoms are out’) or imprudent (‘don’t scratch mosquito bites’). It requires us to have a universal sense of right and wrong. Pnker says it also requires that one think that the immoral actor needs to be punished, although while I agree that is a common reaction, it is not essential to seeing this action as immoral.

“The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.” Actions can take on different tones of morality over time: smoking has become moralized from largely being a person decision and many other behaviors have become amoralized over time like divorce, being a working mother, using pot, or being gay. And Pinker notes that the movement of smoking to being “immoral” is not just a question of the harm done to others since other things which cause harm to others, like not changing the batteries in smoke alarms or going on a driving vacation, both which increase the risk to others, are not moralized.

Examples developed by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, show that we typically develop a gut feel about whether something is moral or immoral and then struggle to defend our position. For example, deciding that it is immoral for a woman cleaning out her closet and finding her old, now unwanted, American flag, to cut it up into pieces and use the rags to clean her bathroom. In this case as in many others, it is difficult to argue who has been hurt.

And scholars think that many of our standards of immorality have developed for evolutionary biological reasons. We think it is okay to push a lever to divert a speeding conductorless trolley onto another track that kills one innocent person rather than the five it would kill on its current course, but not okay to throw a fat man off a bridge in front of a trolley to save these five men, even though both result in one innocent person being killed rather than five. Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, believes that we developed norms about not manhandling innocent people. They also tested this with neuroscience to observe with brain scanners a conflict between the brain’s emotional regions and the brain’s rational lobes. “When people pondered the dilemmas that required killing someone with their bare hands, several networks in their brains lighted up. One, which included the medial (inward-facing) parts of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in emotions about other people. A second, the dorsolateral (upper and outer-facing) surface of the frontal lobes, has been implicated in ongoing mental computation (including nonmoral reasoning, like deciding whether to get somewhere by plane or train). And a third region, the anterior cingulate cortex (an evolutionarily ancient strip lying at the base of the inner surface of each cerebral hemisphere), registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.

“But when the people were pondering a hands-off dilemma, like switching the trolley onto the spur with the single worker, the brain reacted differently: only the area involved in rational calculation stood out. Other studies have shown that neurological patients who have blunted emotions because of damage to the frontal lobes become utilitarians: they think it makes perfect sense to throw the fat man off the bridge. Together, the findings corroborate Greene’s theory that our nonutilitarian intuitions come from the victory of an emotional impulse over a cost-benefit analysis.”

This research led closer to a sense of universal morality, that emerges even early in childhood before empathy is taught. “Four-year-olds say that it is not O.K. to wear pajamas to school (a convention) and also not O.K. to hit a little girl for no reason (a moral principle). But when asked whether these actions would be O.K. if the teacher allowed them, most of the children said that wearing pajamas would now be fine but that hitting a little girl would still not be.”People almost universally across the globe have things that might seem akin to social capital: “a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms.” They also believe in deference to legitimate power, respecting high status people, and avoiding “defilement, contamination and carnality.” They’ve lumped these into five elements of the “periodic table” of morality: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity, the second and third of which are closely connected to social capital. Pinker notes that groups across the world can vary on morality depending on the relative weights they attach to these five elements of morality.

The subjects of fiarness and community/loyalty “match up with the classic examples of how altruism can evolve that were worked out by sociobiologists in the 1960s and 1970s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Fairness is very close to what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future (consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as ”the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom, who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.”Community, the very different emotion that prompts people to share and sacrifice without an expectation of payback, may be rooted in nepotistic altruism, the empathy and solidarity we feel toward our relatives (and which evolved because any gene that pushed an organism to aid a relative would have helped copies of itself sitting inside that relative). In humans, of course, communal feelings can be lavished on nonrelatives as well. Sometimes it pays people (in an evolutionary sense) to love their companions because their interests are yoked, like spouses with common children, in-laws with common relatives, friends with common tastes or allies with common enemies. And sometimes it doesn’t pay them at all, but their kinship-detectors have been tricked into treating their groupmates as if they were relatives by tactics like kinship metaphors (blood brothers, fraternities, the fatherland), origin myths, communal meals and other bonding rituals.

” Unfortunately, the meme of the selfish gene escaped from popular biology books and mutated into the idea that organisms (including people) are ruthlessly self-serving. And this doesn’t follow. Genes are not a reservoir of our dark unconscious wishes. ”Selfish” genes are perfectly compatible with selfless organisms, because a gene’s metaphorical goal of selfishly replicating itself can be implemented by wiring up the brain of the organism to do unselfish things, like being nice to relatives or doing good deeds for needy strangers. When a mother stays up all night comforting a sick child, the genes that endowed her with that tenderness were ‘selfish’ in a metaphorical sense, but by no stretch of the imagination is she being selfish.

“Nor does reciprocal altruism — the evolutionary rationale behind fairness — imply that people do good deeds in the cynical expectation of repayment down the line. We all know of unrequited good deeds, like tipping a waitress in a city you will never visit again and falling on a grenade to save platoonmates. These bursts of goodness are not as anomalous to a biologist as they might appear.”

Trivers, the biologist showed that even individuals who wish to promote reciprocity must develop some system (he proposed tit-for-tat) in being reciprocal without being preyed upon or perennially cheated. Trivers theorized that people would compete in a reciprocal society to be the most generous partner so that his reputation would spread and others would want to cooperate with him, since a reputation for fairness and generosity was important. And favor receivers would have to sort out the puffery (claims of having done huge favors) from the reality. But Trivers hypothesized an ecological niche also for stingy reciprocators who gain fewer trading partners, but have to give less on each transaction or cheaters who exploit gains from one-off transactions without the expectation of repeat play.

Whether this morality is God-given is unknown although Pinker notes that the rules of morality have to be symmetrical: we can’t advocate a system that constantlly privileges me over you. That is why the notion of “interchangability of perspectives” keeps on reappearing in “the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.”

The Pinker article is available here.

Daniel Goleman

Relatedly, Daniel Goleman wants to know what impels us to act morally. There is a nice talk by Daniel Goleman at TED (link below) on empathy and the good Samaritan with a good summary here.

Goleman hypothesizes, based on an incident with a homeless man in NYC and the fact that we are wired neurologically to empathize, that all empathy takes is us noticing others’ needs and “tuning in” rather than “tuning out.” Because of the outpouring of help that Goleman’s noticing of this Hispanic homeless man prompted, he is optimistic.

But Goleman doesn’t discuss why we don’t notice. Some of it surely is that we train ourselves not to notice, but it may also be a self-protection mechanism against feeling that there are too many needs out there and we can’t satisfy these needs, or a competition between our desire to meet the needs of family/friends versus the needs of strangers, or the fact that humans also don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and under-serve homeless for example, because the experience of getting tricked into helping someone who feigns homelessness or injury is greater than the joy that comes from helping another (even if 9 out of 10 beggars are legitimate).

Daniel Goleman TED talk available here.