A common theme running through debates on combating global problems like poverty and common change is the idea that something must be done. Usually, this is taken to mean that some prosocial behaviour must be actively encouraged and sought out: for example, encouraging people to recycle, or having public health campaigns to encourage people to vaccinate. These solutions typically require individuals going out of their way to do what is often a costly behaviour, and consequently, have only limited success. But what if prosocial behaviour could also be encouraged by making use of the passivity of human nature? What if people could do good by doing nothing?
I think this is true: my behavior, and your behavior, and all human behavior, is shaped in a wide range of ways by the environment. What do I mean by the environment? Here are some examples.
Being in an environment with loud noise levels might make you less likely to help strangers in need (Matthews and Cannon 1975).
Being in a pleasant smelling environment might make you more likely to help strangers in need (Baron 1997).
Wearing sunglasses might make you behave more selfishly (Zhong et al. 2010).
Should we be worried about these kinds of environmental influences? Continue reading
It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool
‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.
A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.
‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’
He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.
‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’
There was a ripple of relief.
‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’
One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.
‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’
‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’
The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’
‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’
No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.
‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’ Continue reading
Subtly designing people’s choice environment in a way that they decide for a desired cause of action – so called “nudging” – receives growing interest as a potential tool for practical ethics. New psychological research suggests a surprisingly simple, but potentially powerful strategy to nudge people.
Epigenetics and Blaming Pregnant Women: Hasty Conclusions, Control, and Simplified Burden of Responsibility
In a recent (13.8.2014) article in Nature , Sarah S. Richardson and colleagues maintain that careless discussion of epigenetic research on how early life affects health across generations could harm women.
Authors discuss the extensive history of placing the burden of responsibility of a child’s health on the lifestyle of the pregnant mother – and the means for controlling women’s behavior. Authors describe how, for example, evidence of any fetal harm easily lead to zero-tolerance regulatory frameworks and severe informal and formal consequences (e.g. social condemnation for an occasional sip of alcohol despite the ambiguous evidence that very moderate and occasional drinking should harm the fetus), and how the “lack of emotional warmth” of the “refrigerator mothers ” was considered to be the reason to child autism as late as the 1970s. Going even more backwards in the history, various defects were attributed, for example, to the company the mother kept during pregnancy.
At present I am travelling with my immediate family, seeing less immediate family, back and forth across the US south. One thing I’ve remembered: it can be good to be a part of a close-knit group. One’s faults and mistakes are more readily understood and forgiven. One’s strengths are more readily celebrated. One’s identity is bolstered in all sorts of ways.
As we should know by now, of course, it can be bad to be a part of a close-knit group as well. In ways one’s freedom and identity can be constrained by group membership. But I’m not thinking of the effects on group members. Being a part of a close-knit group can more readily lead to immoral behaviour towards non-group members. The faults and mistakes of those outside the group are less readily understood and forgiven. The strengths of those outside the group are less readily celebrated. In general, it is easier to demonize and dehumanize out-group members.
An interesting recent paper – ‘Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses’ – sheds some light on these phenomena. Continue reading
Evolutionary Psychology has recently gained some public attention in Finland, as the University of Turku has announced that it will establish the discipline as a permanent study module from the beginning of autumn 2014. University of Turku reports itself to be among the first universities in Europe to provide studies in this discipline.
Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a debated discipline, and its institutionalisation adds some weight to the debate. A thorough discussion of its “pros and cons” are beyond this entry – instead, I am interested on the manner in which this relatively young and multidisciplinary discipline is debated.
Most debaters seem to have a strong opinion about EP. It can be seen as the Grand Theory answering all the questions of humanity, or as pseudoscience without slightest scientific background. Obviously, none of the extremist positions is sensible.
By Kimberly Schelle & Nadira Faulmüller
Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 2014-2020 largest research programme ever, includes the call to pursue ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ (RRI). RRI stands for a research and innovation process in which all societal actors (e.g. citizens, policy makers, business and researchers) are working together in the process to align the outcomes with the values, needs, and expectations of the European Society. In a recently published paper on the importance of including the public and patients’ voices in bioethical reasoning, the authors describe, although in other words, the value of the RRI approach in bioethical issues:
“A bioethical position that fails to do this [exchange with the public opinion], and which thus avoids the confrontation with different public arguments, including ones perhaps based in different cultural histories, relations and ontological grounds […], not only runs the risk of missing important aspects, ideas and arguments. It also arouses strong suspicion of being indeed one-sided, biased or ideological—thus illegitimate.”