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On a happier note

Starting with the financial crisis back in autumn it seems that greed and poor judgement are two persistent themes this year. While mankind was not entirely unfamiliar with the plague of greed prior to October 2008, recent events have meant that hardly a day goes by when such vicious matters do not make the headlines in one form or another. Attending an Oxford college ceremony the other day gave a bit of a historical perspective on how to deal with greed. The ‘pennies from the tower’ ceremony involved (or used to involve in times prior to current health and safety regulations) inviting a group of impoverished children onto the college lawn and then letting the pennies rain down from the tower above. But as they started to scurry around, fighting each other for the coins, they noticed that the pennies were hot. Piping hot. This was considered an excellent way to teach the children that greed is a vice and that there is no such thing as a free lunch. No doubt the blisters on their little hands would have served as an efficient reminder of this harsh lesson. One of the problems with this practice is it is far from clear that brute force the best way to introduce more positive values and behavioural patterns in people. Indeed, it is not even clear that the threat of punishment and public humiliation works as a deterrent.

Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioural Economics at MIT, has performed a series of tests to find out how far ‘normal’ people are willing to go to cheat and how they rationalise their actions to themselves. In a recent BBC Today interview (here) the researcher explained that his experiments show that most people are willing to cheat if the circumstances are right, e.g. if the rules are such that we can persuade ourselves that they can be bent or do not really apply to us, that our peers behave similarly and so on. Interestingly, it is also the case that the propensity to cheat is not particularly sensitive to the risk of being caught. What did stop people from cheating, on the other hand, was to be reminded of their own moral values (the subjects were for example asked to recite the 10 commandments right before the experiment). If Ariely is right it would appear that punishment post misbehaving is not particularly efficient.

But even in situations where we want to behave well and do the right thing it might not be a straightforward matter. From an environmental point of view it is not evident that modern society with its exaggerated focus on the individual is particularly conducive to a sense of care and concern for the other. If anything, it frequently encourages selfish behaviour, free riding and greed instead of rewarding a sense of responsibility and an ability to think about the bigger picture. But we are also facing challenges caused by biological factors. Studies have shown that most of us are notoriously bad at processing information, judging risk and calculating consequences. We suffer from bias, information overload and an inability to identify the right experts to whom we can defer the decision to. We are, in short, severely epistemically challenged.  To top things off, our situation is likely to get ever more precarious as the information society continues to develop. (1)

So how can we get better at handling modern life and perhaps overcome some of these unfortunate limitations?  While not denying that punishment has a role to play, for example in cases such as the current MP expense account scandal, I would like to shift the focus. A more constructive way forward would be to create a stronger connection between what we say we value and want and our actual behavioural patterns. To explore how best to instil a set of values – let us call them character virtues – that have a very strong impact on our behavioural patterns. Now, some might say that in light of the research referred to above it would seem somewhat unlikely that we are capable of acquiring the type of stable moral and epistemic virtues which would be required. I am not so sure about that.

Aristotle famously argued that a life lived in line with the virtues was the best life for any human being. This is the fulfilled life, the life that allows us to flourish and realise all our capacities. This life is, however, not just a set of actions – it is a set of actions performed by someone who does them because she correctly sees the point in doing them. For Aristotle moral virtue comes in stages, through education and habituation, and it has both cognitive and emotional dimensions. Admittedly his analysis might not have been very refined in the eyes of a modern psychologist but he touched on something that is still a question in ethics, i.e. can virtue be taught or can it only be acquired by practicing or is it perhaps part of human nature. Aristotle was convinced that we can recognise virtue in others without mastering the virtues ourselves (just like we can see when someone is in fine health without having a 1st in medicine) and seek to model ourselves on that.

An interesting example of the power of the habituation process is Frenchman Matthieu Ricard. Ricard, formerly a promising biologist, converted to Buddhism some 30 years ago, is sometimes called the happiest man in the world. While this is clearly an exaggeration, what is true that he is, by far, the happiest person the neuroscientists at The Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have ever encountered. The tests build on discoveries that the brain’s response to experience is to evolve and that this development can be captured through scanning. Ricard explains “The relationship between the left and right cortex of the brain can be measured and the relationship between them faithfully represents the subject’s temperament. Heightened activity on the left is associated with pleasant emotions; bias to the right indicated negativity and depression” (here). According to Ricard his exceptional happiness is a direct result of lengthy mediation (or mind training) on issues like unconditional love, and he claims that this has altered his character profoundly. This claim is corroborated in numerous scientific studies which connect meditation and other forms of mind training to long term change (especially with regards to neuroplasticity). (2)

In light of the social and biological limitations mentioned above it is, arguably, not less but all the more important to continue the virtue project. Instilling stable character traits can help us regulate our behaviour, counterbalance our natural challenges and make us happier. It might well be that we need a new, or greatly extended, set of epistemic and/or character virtues to do well in the modern world but the idea that the virtuous life is the good life is far from doomed. The fact that the habituation, or learning, process might be lengthy and at times quite hard is not to say that it is impossible or not worthwhile. As Aristotle pointed out – the virtuous life is an acquired taste.

(1) See e.g. Gilovich, Griffin & Kahneman (eds.) (2002) Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment (New York: CUP); Greene & Haidt (2002) ‘How (and Where) does Moral Judgment Work?’, Trends in Cog. Sci. 6: 517–23; Haidt (2001) ‘The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment’, Psych. Rev. 108: 814-834; Wheatley & Haidt (2005) ‘Hypnotic Disgust Makes Moral Judgments More Severe’, Psych. Sci. 16: 780-4; Kosfeld et al. (2005) ‘Oxytocin Increases Trust in Humans’, Nature 435: 2; Knoch et al. ‘Diminishing Reciprocal Fairness by Disrupting the Right Prefrontal Cortex’, Science 314/5800: 829-32; Kiesel et al. ‘Unconscious Priming According to Multiple S-R Rules’, Cognition 104/1: 89-105; Brasil-Neto et al. (1992) ‘Focal Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and Response Bias in a Forced-Choice Task’, J. of Neurol., Neurosurg., and Psychiatry 55: 964-6; Baumeister (2002) ‘Yielding to Temptation’, J. of Consumer Research 28: 670-6; Hsee & Hastle “Decision and experience: why don’t we choose what makes us happy?, TRENDS in Cognitive Science, vol. 10, no 1 January 2006.

(2) Luders, et al. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage 45: 672-678. Britta K. Hölzel, Ulrich Ott, Tim Gard, Hannes Hempel, Martin Weygandt, Katrin Morgen, and Dieter Vaitl, “Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry”  in Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2008 March; 3(1): 55–61. Lazer et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 16: 1893–1897. Brefczynski-Lewis et al.Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104: 11483–11488.

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