Joel Brockner: The Passion Plea

This post originally appears on the blog of Psychology Today

BrocknerIt’s tough to argue with the idea that passion is an admirable aspect of the human condition. Passionate people are engaged in life; they really care about their values and causes and being true to them. However, a big minefield of passion is when people use it to excuse or explain away unseemly behavior. We saw this during the summer of 2017 in how the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responded to the infamous expletive-laced attack of Anthony Scaramucci on his then fellow members of the Trump team, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. According to The New York Times, (July 27, 2017),  “Ms. Sanders said mildly that Mr. Scaramucci was simply expressing strong feelings, and that his statement made clear that ‘he’s a passionate guy and sometimes he lets that passion get the better of him.’ ” Whereas Ms. Sanders acknowledged that Mr. Scaramucci behaved badly (his passion got the better of him), her meta-message is that it was no big deal, as implied by the words “mildly” and “simply” in the quote above.

The passion plea is by no means limited to the world of politics. Executives who are seen as emotionally rough around the edges by their co-workers often defend their behavior with statements like, “I’m just being passionate,” or “I am not afraid to tell it like it is,” or, “My problem is that I care too much.”

The passion plea distorts reality by glossing over the distinction between what is said and how it is said. Executives who deliver negative feedback in a harsh tone are not just being passionate. Even when the content of the negative feedback is factual, harsh tones convey additional messages – notably a lack of dignity and respect. Almost always, there are ways to send the same strong messages or deliver the same powerful feedback in ways that do not convey a lack of dignity and respect. For instance, Mr. Scaramucci could have said something like, “Let me be as clear as possible: I have strong disagreements with Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus.” It may have been less newsworthy, but it could have gotten the same message across. Arguably, Mr. Scaramucci’s 11-day tenure as White House director of communications would have been longer had he not been so “passionate” and instead used more diplomatic language.

Similarly, executives that I coach rarely disagree when it is made evident that they could have sent the same strong negative feedback in ways that would have been easier for their co-workers to digest. Indeed, this is the essence of constructive criticism, which typically seeks to change the behavior of the person on the receiving end. Rarely are managers accused of coming on “too strong” if they deliver negative feedback in the right ways. For example, instead of saying something about people’s traits or characters (e.g., “You aren’t reliable”) it would be far better to provide feedback with reference to specific behavior (e.g., “You do not turn in your work on time”). People usually are more willing and able to respond to negative feedback about what they do rather than who they are. Adding a problem-solving approach is helpful as well, such as, “Some weeks you can be counted on to do a good job whereas other weeks not nearly as much. Why do you think that is happening, and what can we do together to ensure greater consistency in your performance?” Moreover, the feedback has to be imparted in a reasonable tone of voice, and in a context in which people on the receiving end are willing and able to take it in. For instance, one of my rules in discussing with students why they didn’t do well on an assignment is that we not talk immediately after they received the unwanted news. It is far better to have a cooling-off period in which defensiveness goes down and open-mindedness goes up.

If our goal is to alienate people or draw negative attention to ourselves then we should be strong and hard-driving, even passionate, in what we say as well as crude and inappropriate in how we say it. However, if we want to be a force for meaningful change or a positive role model, it is well within our grasp to be just as strong and hard-driving in what we say while being respectful and dignified in how we say it.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School.

Chris Chambers: The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology

ChambersPsychological science has made extraordinary discoveries about the human mind, but can we trust everything its practitioners are telling us? In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that a lot of research in psychology is based on weak evidence, questionable practices, and sometimes even fraud. The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology by Chris Chambers diagnoses the ills besetting the discipline today and proposes sensible, practical solutions to ensure that it remains a legitimate and reliable science in the years ahead.

Why did you decide to write this book?

CC: Over the last fifteen years I‘ve become increasingly fed up with the “academic game” in psychology, and I strongly believe we need to raise standards to make our research more transparent and reliable. As a psychologist myself, one of the key lessons I’ve learned is that there is a huge difference between how the public thinks science works and how it actually works. The public have this impression of scientists as objective truth seekers on a selfless mission to understand nature. That’s a noble picture but bears little resemblance to reality. Over time, the mission of psychological science has eroded from something that originally was probably quite close to that vision but has now become a contest for short-term prestige and career status, corrupted by biased research practices, bad incentives and occasionally even fraud.

Many psychologists struggle valiantly against the current system but they are swimming against a tide. I trained within that system. I understand how it works, how to use it, and how it can distort your thinking. After 10 years of “playing the game” I realized I didn’t like the kind of scientist I was turning into, so I decided to try and change the system and my own practices—not only to improve science but to help younger scientists avoid my predicament. At its heart this book lays out my view of how we can reinvigorate psychology by adopting an emerging philosophy called “open science.” Some people will agree with this solution. Many will not. But, above all, the debate is important to have.

It sounds like you’re quite skeptical about science generally.

CC: Even though I’m quite critical about psychology, the book shouldn’t be seen as anti-science—far from it. Science is without doubt the best way to discover the truth about the world and make rational decisions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. We need to face the problems in psychology head-on and develop practical solutions. The stakes are high. If we succeed then psychology can lead the way in helping other sciences solve similar problems. If we fail then I believe psychology will fade into obscurity and become obsolete.

Would it matter if psychology disappeared? Is it really that important?

CC: Psychology is a huge part of our lives. We need it in every domain where it is important to understand human thought or behavior, from treating mental illness, to designing traffic signs, to addressing global problems like climate change, to understanding basic (but extraordinarily complex) mental functions such as how we see or hear. Understanding how our minds work is the ultimate journey of self-discovery and one of the fundamental sciences. And it’s precisely because the world needs robust psychological science that researchers have an ethical obligation to meet the high standards expected of us by the public.

Who do you think will find your book most useful?

CC: I have tried to tailor the content for a variety of different audiences, including anyone who is interested in psychology or how science works. Among non-scientists, I think the book may be especially valuable for journalists who report on psychological research, helping them overcome common pitfalls and identify the signs of bad or weak studies. At another level, I’ve written this as a call-to-arms for my fellow psychologists and scientists in closely aligned disciplines, because we need to act collectively in order to fix these problems. And the most important readers of all are the younger researchers and students who are coming up in the current academic system and will one day inherit psychological science. We need to get our house in order to prepare this generation for what lies ahead and help solve the difficulties we inherited.

So what exactly are the problems facing psychology research?

CC: I’ve identified seven major ills, which (a little flippantly, I admit) can be cast as seven deadly sins. In order they are Bias, Hidden Flexibility, Unreliability, Data Hoarding, Corruptibility, Internment, and Bean Counting. I won’t ruin the suspense by describing them in detail, but they all stem from the same root cause: we have allowed the incentives that drive individual scientists to fall out of step with what’s best for scientific advancement. When you combine this with the intense competition of academia, it creates a research culture that is biased, closed, fearful and poorly accountable—and just as a damp bathroom encourages mold, a closed research culture becomes the perfect environment for cultivating malpractice and fraud.

It all sounds pretty bad. Is psychology doomed?

CC: No. And I say this emphatically: there is still time to turn this around. Beneath all of these problems, psychology has a strong foundation; we’ve just forgotten about it in the rat race of modern academia. There is a growing movement to reform research practices in psychology, particularly among the younger generation. We can solve many problems by adopting open scientific practices—practices such as pre-registering study designs to reduce bias, making data and study materials as publicly available as possible, and changing the way we assess scientists for career advancement. Many of these problems are common to other fields in the life sciences and social sciences, which means that if we solve them in psychology we can solve them in those areas too. In short, it is time for psychology to grow up, step up, and take the lead.

How will we know when we’ve fixed the deadly sins?

CC: The main test is that our published results should become a lot more reliable and repeatable. As things currently stand, there is a high chance that any new result published in a psychology journal is a false discovery. So we’ll know we’ve cracked these problems when we can start to believe the published literature and truly rely on it. When this happens, and open practices become the norm, the closed practices and weak science that define our current culture will seem as primitive as alchemy.

Chris Chambers is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University and a contributor to the Guardian science blog network. He is the author of The 7 Deadly Sins of Psychology: A Manifesto for Reforming the Culture of Scientific Practice.

Joel Brockner: Can Job Autonomy Be a Double-Edged Sword?

This post was originally published on the Psychology Today blog.

“You can arrive to work whenever convenient.”

“Work from home whenever you wish.”

“You can play music at work at any time.”

These are examples of actual workplace policies from prominent companies such as Aetna, American Express, Dell, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Zappos. They have joined the ranks of many organizations in giving employees greater job autonomy, that is, more freedom to decide when, where, and how to do their work. And why not? Research by organizational psychologists such as Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham and by social psychologists such as Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, has shown that job autonomy can have many positive effects. The accumulated evidence is that employees who experience more autonomy are more motivated, creative, and satisfied with their jobs.

Against this backdrop of the generally favorable effects of job autonomy, recent research has shown that it also may have a dark side: unethical behavior. Jackson Lu, Yoav Vardi, Ely Weitz and I discovered such results in a series of field and laboratory studies soon to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In field studies conducted in Israel, employees from a wide range of industries rated how much autonomy they had and how often they engaged in unethical behavior, such as misrepresenting their work hours or wasting work time on private phone calls. Those who had greater autonomy said that they engaged in more unethical behavior on the job. In laboratory experiments conducted in the United States we found that it may not even be necessary for people to have actual autonomy for them to behave unethically; merely priming them with the idea of autonomy may do the trick. In these studies participants were randomly assigned to conditions differing in how much the concept of autonomy was called to mind. This was done with a widely used sentence-unscrambling task in which people had to rearrange multiple series of words into grammatically correct sentences. For example, those in the high-autonomy condition were given words such as, “have many as you as days wish you vacation may” which could be rearranged to form the sentence, “You may have as many vacation days as you wish.” In contrast, those in the low-autonomy condition were given words such as, “office in work you must the,” which could be rearranged to, “You must work in the office.” After completing the sentence-unscrambling exercise participants did another task in which they were told that the amount of money they earned depended on how well they performed. The activity was structured in a way that enabled us to tell whether participants lied about their performance. Those who were previously primed to experience greater autonomy in the sentence-unscrambling task lied more. Job autonomy gives employees a sense of freedom which usually has positive effects on their productivity and morale but also can lead them to feel that they can do whatever they want, including not adhering to rules of morality.

All behavior is a function of what people want to do (motivation) and what they are capable of doing (ability). Consider the unethical behavior elicited by high levels of autonomy. Having high autonomy may not have made people want to behave unethically. However, it may have enabled the unethical behavior by making it possible for people to engage in it. Indeed, the distinction between people wanting to behave unethically versus having the capability of doing so may help answer two important questions:

(1) What might mitigate the tendency for job autonomy to elicit unethical behavior?

(2) If job autonomy can lead to unethical behavior should companies re-evaluate whether to give job autonomy to its employees? That is, can job autonomy be introduced in a way that maximizes its positive consequences (e.g., greater creativity) without introducing the negative effect of unethical behavior?

With respect to the first question, my hunch is that people who have job autonomy and therefore are able to behave unethically will not do so if they do not want to behave unethically. For example, people who are high on the dimension of moral identity, for whom behaving morally is central to how they define themselves would be less likely to behave unethically even when a high degree of job autonomy enabled or made it possible for them to do so.

With respect to the second question, I am not recommending that companies abandon their efforts to provide employees with job autonomy. Our research suggests, rather, that the consequences of giving employees autonomy may not be summarily favorable. Taking a more balanced view of how employees respond to job autonomy may shed light on how organizations can maximize the positive effects of job autonomy while minimizing the negative consequence of unethical behavior.

Whereas people generally value having autonomy, some people want it more than others. People who want autonomy a lot may be less likely to behave unethically when they experience autonomy. For one thing, they may be concerned that the autonomy they covet may be taken away if they were to take advantage of it by behaving unethically. This reasoning led us to do another study to evaluate when the potential downside of felt autonomy can be minimized while its positive effects can be maintained. Once again, we primed people to experience varying degrees of job autonomy with the word-unscrambling exercise. Half of them then went on to do the task which measured their tendency to lie about their performance, whereas the other half completed an entirely different task, one measuring their creativity. Once again, those who worked on the task in which they could lie about their performance did so more when they were primed to experience greater autonomy. And, as has been found in previous research those who did the creativity task performed better at it when they were primed to experience greater autonomy.

Regardless of whether they did the task that measured unethical behavior or creativity, participants also indicated how much they generally valued having autonomy. Among those who generally valued having autonomy to a greater extent, (1) the positive relationship between experiencing job autonomy and behaving unethically diminished, whereas (2) the positive relationship between experiencing job autonomy and creativity was maintained. In other words, as long as people valued having autonomy, the experience of autonomy had the positive effect of enhancing creativity without introducing the dangerous side effect of unethical behavior. So, when organizations introduce job autonomy policies like those mentioned at the outset, they may gain greater overall benefits when they ensure that their employees value having autonomy. This may be achieved by selecting employees who value having autonomy as well as by creating a corporate culture which emphasizes the importance of it. More generally, a key practical takeaway from our studies is that when unethical behavior is enabled, whether through job autonomy or other factors, it needs to be counterbalanced by conditions that make employees not want to go there.

BrocknerJoel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He is the author of The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success.

Face Value: Man or Woman?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. In honor of the book’s release, we’re sharing examples from his research every week.

Todorov

It is easy to identify the woman in the image on the right and the man in the image on the left. But the two images are almost identical with one subtle difference: the skin surface in the image on the left is a little bit darker. The eyes and lips of the faces are identical, but the rest of the image on the left was darkened, and the rest of the image on the right was lightened. This manipulation makes the face on the left look masculine and the face on the right look feminine. This is one way to induce the gender illusion. Here is another one.

Based on research reported in

  1. Russell (2009). “A sex difference in facial contrast and its exaggeration by cosmetics.” Perception 38, 1211–1219.

Todorov

Face Value: Eyebrows

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 

 

Todorov

It is easier to recognize Richard Nixon when his eyes are removed than when his eyebrows are removed from the image. Our intuitions about what facial features are important are insufficient at best and misleading at worst.

 

Based on research reported in

  1. Sadr, I. Jarudi, and P. Sinha (2003). “The role of eyebrows in face recognition.” Perception 32, 285–293.

Todorov

Face Value: Can you recognize the celebrities?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 

 

Todorov

 

A: Justin Bieber and Beyoncé

 

Todorov

Face Value: Who is more likely to have committed a violent crime?

In Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Princeton professor of psychology Alexander Todorov delves into the science of first impressions. Throughout the month of May, we’ll be sharing examples of his research. 

 

Todorov

 

The face on the right was manipulated to be perceived as more criminal looking and the face on the left as less criminal looking.

Note that these immediate impressions need not be grounded in reality. They are our visual stereotypes of what constitutes criminal appearance. Note also the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. More masculine appearance makes a face appear more criminal. In contrast, more feminine appearance makes a face appear less criminal. But keep in mind that it is impossible to describe all the variations between the two faces in verbal terms.

Based on research reported in

  1. Funk, M. Walker, and A. Todorov (2016). “Modeling perceived criminality and remorse in faces using a data-driven computational approach.” Cognition & Emotion, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2016.1227305.

 

Todorov

Celebration of Science: A reading list

This Earth Day 2017, Princeton University Press is celebrating science in all its forms. From ecology to psychology, astronomy to earth sciences, we are proud to publish books at the highest standards of scholarship, bringing the best work of scientists to a global audience. We all benefit when scientists are given the space to conduct their research and push the boundaries of the human store of knowledge further. Read on for a list of essential reading from some of the esteemed scientists who have published with Princeton University Press.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Abraham Flexner and Robbert Dijkgraaf

Use

The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll

Carroll

Honeybee Democracy
Thomas D. Seeley

Seeley

Silent Sparks
Sara Lewis

Lewis

Where the River Flows
Sean W. Fleming

Fleming

How to Clone a Mammoth
Beth Shapiro

Shapiro

The Future of the Brain
Gary Marcus & Jeremy Freeman

Brain

Searching for the Oldest Stars
Anna Frebel

Frebel

Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

Climate

Welcome to the Universe
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott

Universe

The New Ecology
Oswald J. Schmitz

Schmitz

Joel Brockner: Are We More or Less Likely to Continue Behaving Morally?

by Joel Brockner

This post appears concurrently on Psychology Today.

Sometimes when we do something it causes us to continue in the same vein, or show a more extreme version of the behavior. The method of social influence known as “the foot-in-the-door” technique is based on this tendency. For instance, salespeople usually won’t ask you to make a big purchase, such as a yearlong subscription, right off the bat. Instead, they will first ask you to take a small step, such as to accept an introductory offer that will only last for a little while. Then, at a later date they will ask you to make the big purchase. Research shows that people are more likely to go along with a big request if they previously agreed to a small related request. A now-classic study suggested that people were willing to put a large, ugly sign in front of their homes saying, “Drive Carefully,” if, a few days before they simply signed their name to a petition supporting safe driving.

Other times, however, when people do something it makes them less likely to continue to behave that way. For example, if people made a charitable contribution to the United Way at work, they may feel less compelled to do so if the United Way came knocking on their door at home. In fact, if solicited at home they would probably say something to the effect of, “I gave at the office.” Research by Benoit Monin and Dale Miller on moral licensing shows a similar tendency. Once people do a good deed it makes them less likely to continue, at least for a while.

The notion of moral licensing assumes that most of us want to see ourselves as open-minded or generous. Engaging in behavior that is open-minded or generous allows us to see ourselves in these desirable ways, which ironically may free us up to behave close-mindedly or selfishly. Regarding open-mindedness, consider the evolution that has transpired in the management literature on the meaning of diversity. Originally, diversity referred to legally protected categories set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was designed to prevent employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Over time, the definition of diversity has broadened, such that employers increasingly use non-legal dimensions – e.g., personality traits, culture, and communication style – as indicators of diversity. An example of a broad definition of diversity may be found on the website of Dow AgroSciences: “Diversity … extends well beyond descriptors such as race, gender, age or ethnicity; we are intentional about including aspects of diversity that address our differences in culture, background, experiences, perspectives, personal and work style.” Modupe Akinola and her colleagues recently discovered that law firms that adopted broader definitions of diversity had fewer women and minorities in their employee base. Thus, behaving open-mindedly (adopting a broad definition of diversity) was associated with law firms acting close-mindedly towards women and minorities.

Regarding generosity, studies have shown that people’s willingness to donate to a charitable cause is reduced if, beforehand, they wrote a short story about themselves using morally positive words (e.g., fair, kind) than if they wrote a short story about themselves using morally negative words (selfish, mean). The same thing happened if people simply thought about an instance in which they behaved morally rather than immorally. When people’s self-image of being moral is top of mind, they feel licensed to behave in less than moral ways.

So, on the one hand, there is evidence that behaving in a certain way or even thinking about those behaviors causes people to do more of the same. On the other hand, there is evidence that prior acts (or reflecting on prior acts) of morality may make people less likely to behave consistently with their past actions. What makes it go one way rather than the other? One watershed factor is how people think about or construe their behavior. All behavior can be construed in abstract ways or in concrete ways. Abstract construals reflect the “forest,” which refers to the central or defining feature of a behavior. Concrete construals reflect the “trees,” which refers to the specific details of a behavior. Abstract construals focus on the why or deeper meaning of behavior whereas concrete construals focus on the details of how the behavior was enacted. For instance, “developing a procedure” may be construed abstractly as increasing work efficiency or concretely as writing down step-by-step instructions. “Contributing to charity” may be construed abstractly as doing the right thing or concretely as writing a check.

When people construe their behavior abstractly they see it as reflective of their values, their identity, in short, of themselves. When people engage in behavior perceived to reflect themselves it induces them to show more of the same. However, when the same behavior is construed concretely, it is seen as less relevant to who they are. A moral act viewed concretely provides evidence to people that they are moving in the direction of being a moral person, thereby freeing them up subsequently to succumb to more selfish desires. Supporting this reasoning, Paul Conway and Johanna Sheetz showed that when people viewed their acts of morality abstractly they continued to behave morally whereas when they viewed those same behaviors concretely they subsequently behaved more selfishly.

Not only is it intriguing that moral behavior can foster more of the same or less, but also it is practically important to consider when behaving morally will have one effect rather than the other. People in authority positions, such as parents, teachers, and managers, typically want those over whom they have authority to behave morally over the longer haul. This may happen when children, students, and employees construe their acts of morality abstractly rather than concretely. Moreover, authorities have at their disposal a variety of ways to bring about abstract construals, such as: (1) encouraging people to think about why they are engaging in a given behavior rather than how they are doing so, (2) getting people to think categorically (e.g., by asking questions such as, “Downsizing is an example of what?”) rather than in terms of examples (“What is an example of organizational change?”), and (3) thinking about their behavior from the vantage point of greater psychological distance; for instance, when people think about how their extra efforts to benefit the organization will pay off over the long-term, they may be more likely to engage in such activities consistently than if they merely thought about the more immediate benefits.

In The Process Matters, I emphasize that even small differences in how people are treated by authorities can have a big impact on what they think, feel, and do. Here, I am raising a related point: a subtle difference in how people think about their behavior dictates whether their expressions of morality will beget more or less.

Joel Brockner is the Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. He is the author of A Contemporary Look at Organizational Justice: Multiplying Insult Times Injury and Self-Esteem at Work, and the coauthor of Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts.

Brockner

Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

New Brain & Cognitive Science Catalog

We invite you to scroll through the 2016 Brain & Cognitive Science catalog below.

Phishing for PhoolsDon’t miss Phishing for Phools! Nobel Prize-winning economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller challenge the traditional idea that the free market is inherently benign and show us through numerous stories how sellers can manipulate and deceive us.

 

 

ThriveIn Thrive, Richard Layard and David M. Clark argue that the economic and social advantages of investing in modern psychological therapies more than make up for the cost, and that we cannot afford to ignore an issue that affects at least 20% of people in developed countries.

 

 

future of the brainThe Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, is a collection of essays that explore the exciting advances that will allow us to understand the brain as we never have before.

 

 

 

Secret of our SuccessJoseph Henrich makes the case that our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to socially connect with each other and benefit from a collective intelligence in The Secret of Our Success.

 

 

 

For these and many more titles in cognitive science, see our catalog above! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off on select titles through November 13, 2015.

Fall Sale

Finally, if you’ll be attending the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago from October 17-21, visit us at booth 126. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #SfN15!

Tim Verstynen, author of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep does Google Talk

Tim Verstynen, co-author, along with Bradley Voytek, of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain recently participated in an hour-long Talks at Google event (video below).

There are two versions of the video, one in color, and one in black and white for an added spooky affect! Although Halloween came and went with no zombie apocalypse, Verstynen discusses his book and what can be gained in the field of neuroscience by studying zombie brains.

 

[youtube:http://youtu.be/u4DfENVEuFo]
 

 
[youtube:http://youtu.be/UjLcKd4j0YE]

 

bookjacket

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek