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Old 07-01-2008, 12:03 PM   #1
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Just another psycology experiment

NY Times


July 1, 2008


Findings
Deep Down, We Can’t Fool Even Ourselves
By JOHN TIERNEY


In voting against the Bush tax cut in 2001, Senator John McCain said he “cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate.” Today he campaigns in favor of extending that same tax cut beyond its expiration date.

Senator Barack Obama last year called himself a “longtime advocate” of public financing of election campaigns. This month, he reiterated his “support” for such financing while becoming the first major party presidential nominee ever to reject it for his own campaign.

Do you think either of these men is a hypocrite?

If so, does this hypocrite really believe, in his heart, what he is saying?

Fortunately, we don’t need to get into the fine points of taxes or campaign finances to take a stab at these questions. We can probably get further by looking at some experiments in what psychologists call moral hypocrisy.

This is a more devious form of hypocrisy than what was exhibited by, say, the governor of New York when he got caught patronizing a prostitute. It was obviously hypocritical behavior for a public official who had formerly prosecuted prostitutes and increased penalties for their customers, but at least Eliot Spitzer acknowledged his actions were wrong by anyone’s standards.

The moral hypocrite, by contrast, has convinced himself that he is acting virtuously even when he does something he would condemn in others. You can understand this “self-halo” effect — and perhaps discover it in someone very close to you — by considering what happened when two psychologists, Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno, tested people’s reactions to the following situation.

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.”

If a colored wristband is enough to skew your moral judgment, imagine how you are affected by the “D” or the “R” label on your voting registration. If you are a Democrat, you are more likely to think Mr. McCain hypocritically switched tax policies to pick up conservative votes, but Mr. Obama’s decision to abandon public financing probably looks more complicated. If you’re a Republican you’re likelier to figure Mr. Obama did it just so he could raise more money on his own, but you’re more willing to consider Mr. McCain’s economic rationales.

The more interesting question is how presidential candidates, and their supporters, turn into hypocrites. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in experiments that humans are remarkably sensitive to unfairness. We’ve survived as social animals because we are so good at spotting selfishness and punishing antisocial behavior.

So how we do violate our own moral code? Does our gut instinct for self-preservation override our moral reasoning? Do we use our powers of rationality to override our moral instinct?

“The question here,” Dr. DeSteno said, “is whether we’re designed at heart to be fair or selfish.”

To find out, he and Dr. Valdesolo brought more people into the lab and watched them selfishly assign themselves the easy task. Then, at the start of the subsequent questioning, some of these people were asked to memorize a list of numbers and retain it in their heads as they answered questions about the experiment and their actions.

That little bit of extra mental exertion was enough to eliminate hypocrisy. These people judged their own actions just as harshly as others did. Their brains were apparently too busy to rationalize their selfishness, so they fell back on their intuitive feelings about fairness.

“Hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have volitional control,” said Dr. Valdesolo, a psychologist at Amherst College. “Our gut seems to be equally sensitive to our own and others’ transgressions, suggesting that we just need to find ways to better translate our moral feelings into moral actions.”

That is easier said than done, especially in an election year. Even if the presidential candidates know in their guts that they are being hypocritical, they cannot very well be kept busy the whole campaign doing mental arithmetic. Besides, they are surrounded by advisers with plenty of spare mental power to rationalize whatever it takes to win.

Politicians are hypocritical for the same reason the rest of us are: to gain the social benefits of appearing virtuous without incurring the personal costs of virtuous behavior. If you can deceive even yourself into believing that you’re acting for the common good, you’ll have more energy and confidence to further your own interests — and your self-halo can persuade others to help you along.

But as useful as hypocrisy can be, it’s apparently not quite as basic as the human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Your mind can justify double standards, it seems, but in your heart you know you’re wrong.

(Although the writer's last paragraph had a kind of pop psychology feel to it, I thought the experiment itself was interesting)
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Old 07-01-2008, 02:29 PM   #2
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It is an interesting experiment; I found this part a bit curious though:
[q]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.[/q]
I'm not sure I'd use the word "unfair" to describe that. Expedient for sure, but it seems to me that what's unfair about the situation is built into it by the researchers--i.e., that there's no option to somehow split the total workload fifty/fifty. I suppose it would still be hypocritical to declare in the abstract that you should/would choose to give yourself the harder task, then behave differently in practice, but I don't know that that makes the actual outcome any less "fair."
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Old 07-01-2008, 03:50 PM   #3
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Agreed, either way the outcome is not fair for division of labor. However, they do have the option of letting the computer divide up the tasks which gives them a 50-50 shot (I guess) of getting the lesser job without either selfishness or martyrdom

Part of what I found interesting to was not just choosing an act in your self-interest, but wanting to appear virtuous while doing the very act. Not specifically about this election, but behavior it appears anecdotally is becoming more--prominent? brazen?--certainly a behavior I'm seeing more visibly common in some corporate/educational/nonprofit environments.
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Old 07-01-2008, 11:50 PM   #4
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I'd give myself the easy job.

I'm not sure I'd try to convince anyone it was fair though. If asked if my choice was fair I'd probably say "no, but if I have the chance to give myself the easier task I'm sure as hell going to do that!"
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Old 07-02-2008, 04:24 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by indra View Post
I'd give myself the easy job.

I'm not sure I'd try to convince anyone it was fair though. If asked if my choice was fair I'd probably say "no, but if I have the chance to give myself the easier task I'm sure as hell going to do that!"

But see you can't win elections with kind of thing. Sometimes I think that if the pols are hypocrites it's because too many of us don't want the truth. Or at least won't vote for it.
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Old 07-02-2008, 06:48 AM   #6
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I thought this experiment was interesting outside the context of the election as well, else I would have put it in the election thread. Hillary would have fit in there as well. But I found it an interesting experiment in choice and judgment and rationale, the rationale part of it being most interesting to me.

I probably would have chosen the harder task and been obnoxiously self-righteous about it. Little martyr here.
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Old 07-02-2008, 06:51 AM   #7
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I'd give myself the easy job.

I'm not sure I'd try to convince anyone it was fair though. If asked if my choice was fair I'd probably say "no, but if I have the chance to give myself the easier task I'm sure as hell going to do that!"
An honest child.
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Old 07-02-2008, 08:58 AM   #8
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I think that's a fascinating article, thanks for posting

"Your mind can justify double standards, it seems, but in your heart you know you’re wrong"

I would also say that some people can justify anything to the point where I always have to wonder if they, in their heart, ever know they're wrong. Or if they even have a heart. Maybe they've just destroyed it with their mind.
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Old 07-02-2008, 09:08 AM   #9
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An honest child.
I do have to admit being honest in this scenario would be easy because it's not a big deal. I mean who is really going to think of someone as scum for picking the easier of those two tasks? If the stakes were higher I'm not so sure I'd be as honest.
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Old 07-02-2008, 09:27 AM   #10
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I love the idea of quantifying doublethink, it is possible to rationalise things that we actually have opposition towards.
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Old 07-22-2008, 12:47 PM   #11
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July 22, 2008 NY Times


"Mirrors Don’t Lie. Mislead? Oh, Yes."


By NATALIE ANGIER

"For the bubbleheaded young Narcissus of myth, the mirror spun a fatal fantasy, and the beautiful boy chose to die by the side of a reflecting pond rather than leave his “beloved” behind. For the aging narcissist of Shakespeare’s 62nd sonnet, the mirror delivered a much-needed whack to his vanity, the sight of a face “beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity” underscoring the limits of self-love.

Whether made of highly polished metal or of glass with a coating of metal on the back, mirrors have fascinated people for millennia: ancient Egyptians were often depicted holding hand mirrors. With their capacity to reflect back nearly all incident light upon them and so recapitulate the scene they face, mirrors are like pieces of dreams, their images hyper-real and profoundly fake. Mirrors reveal truths you may not want to see. Give them a little smoke and a house to call their own, and mirrors will tell you nothing but lies.

To scientists, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of mirrors make them powerful tools for exploring questions about perception and cognition in humans and other neuronally gifted species, and how the brain interprets and acts upon the great tides of sensory information from the external world. They are using mirrors to study how the brain decides what is self and what is other, how it judges distances and trajectories of objects, and how it reconstructs the richly three-dimensional quality of the outside world from what is essentially a two-dimensional snapshot taken by the retina’s flat sheet of receptor cells. They are applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.

“In a sense, mirrors are the best ‘virtual reality’ system that we can build,” said Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool. “The object ‘inside’ the mirror is virtual, but as far as our eyes are concerned it exists as much as any other object.” Dr. Bertamini and his colleagues have also studied what people believe about the nature of mirrors and mirror images, and have found nearly everybody, even students of physics and math, to be shockingly off the mark.

Other researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V. Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

“When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,” Dr. Bodenhausen said. “A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.” Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you know yourself.

The mirror technique does not always keep knees from jerking. When it comes to socially acceptable forms of stereotyping, said Dr. Bodenhausen, like branding all politicians liars or all lawyers crooks, the presence of a mirror may end up augmenting rather than curbing the willingness to pigeonhole.

The link between self-awareness and elaborate sociality may help explain why the few nonhuman species that have been found to recognize themselves in a mirror are those with sophisticated social lives. Our gregarious great ape cousins — chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas — along with dolphins and Asian elephants, have passed the famed mirror self-recognition test, which means they will, when given a mirror, scrutinize marks that had been applied to their faces or bodies. The animals also will check up on personal hygiene, inspecting their mouths, nostrils and genitals.

Yet not all members of a certifiably self-reflective species will pass the mirror test. Tellingly, said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, “animals raised in isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.”

For that matter, humans do not necessarily see the face in the mirror either. In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

How can we be so self-delusional when the truth stares back at us? “Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don’t look exactly the same every time,” explained Dr. Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. There is the scruffy-morning you, the assembled-for-work you, the dressed-for-an-elegant-dinner you. “Which image is you?” he said. “Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are.”

When we look in the mirror, our relative beauty is not the only thing we misjudge. In a series of studies, Dr. Bertamini and his colleagues have interviewed scores of people about what they think the mirror shows them. They have asked questions like, Imagine you are standing in front of a bathroom mirror; how big do you think the image of your face is on the surface? And what would happen to the size of that image if you were to step steadily backward, away from the glass?

People overwhelmingly give the same answers. To the first question they say, well, the outline of my face on the mirror would be pretty much the size of my face. As for the second question, that’s obvious: if I move away from the mirror, the size of my image will shrink with each step.

Both answers, it turns out, are wrong. Outline your face on a mirror, and you will find it to be exactly half the size of your real face. Step back as much as you please, and the size of that outlined oval will not change: it will remain half the size of your face (or half the size of whatever part of your body you are looking at), even as the background scene reflected in the mirror steadily changes. Importantly, this half-size rule does not apply to the image of someone else moving about the room. If you sit still by the mirror, and a friend approaches or moves away, the size of the person’s image in the mirror will grow or shrink as our innate sense says it should.

What is it about our reflected self that it plays by such counterintuitive rules? The important point is that no matter how close or far we are from the looking glass, the mirror is always halfway between our physical selves and our projected selves in the virtual world inside the mirror, and so the captured image in the mirror is half our true size.

Rebecca Lawson, who collaborates with Dr. Bertamini at the University of Liverpool, suggests imagining that you had an identical twin, that you were both six feet tall and that you were standing in a room with a movable partition between you. How tall would a window in the partition have to be to allow you to see all six feet of your twin?

The window needs to allow light from the top of your twin’s head and from the bottom of your twin’s feet to reach you, Dr. Lawson said. These two light sources start six feet apart and converge at your eye. If the partition is close to your twin, the upper and lower light points have just begun to converge, so the opening has to be nearly six feet tall to allow you a full-body view. If the partition is close to you, the light has nearly finished converging, so the window can be quite small. If the partition were halfway between you and your twin, the aperture would have to be — three feet tall. Optically, a mirror is similar, Dr. Lawson said, “except that instead of lighting coming from your twin directly through a window, you see yourself in the mirror with light from your head and your feet being reflected off the mirror into your eye.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/22/sc...gewanted=print
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