When good people do bad things in groups

Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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The ethics of politics via Aristotle

Aristotle PoliticsPolitics, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the “master science of the good.” The good of which he wrote is the greater good, the “highest good” that benefits the state, not the personal.

For even if the good is the same for the individual and the state, the good of the state clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and safeguard. the attainment of the good for one man alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine.

But good is hard to define, Aristotle wrote, and full of “irregularity” because, he added, “in many cases good things bring harmful results.”

For Aristotle and his fellow philosophers, politics was the science of figuring out what is conducive to life in a polis or city (which in the Greece of his day were city states); it determined how people can live together in communities and cities. It still is, which is why his 2,000-plus year-old work, Politics, is still taught in poli-sci courses.

Politics also has the practical side: the legislative component. And ethics underlies both parts.

Ethics and virtue are interconnected in Aristotle, but it’s not entirely the same virtue of which Machiavelli writes (and Aristotle described many more virtues than Plato’s four: courage, wisdom, temperance and justice). Aristotle’s virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. It isn’t being super good, or unbendingly upright, or sticking to a dogma or theological script.

It’s almost like situational ethics (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.7). The BBC notes:

Situation ethics teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

As this site notes:

Aristotle says that it is a mean between extremes, but not a mechanically determinable mean: “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”

For example, the mean between obsequiousness and cantankerousness is friendliness (see here). Angry, vituperative blogs full of accusation and wild allegation would not fit Aristotle’s definition of virtuous because they have a deficiency of social conduct, according to the chart.

As this site explains:

The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence.

It also notes:

True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

Cultivation: it means virtues have to be consciously worked at, and practiced. They are not innate or hereditary.

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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus AureliusI continue to be profoundly moved by the wisdom of the classical authors. It’s often hard to accept that some of them were writing two or more millennia ago: many seem so contemporary they could have been written this century.

Of late – within the past year or so – I’ve been reading Lucretius, Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Elder*… and more recently Marcus Aurelius.

I’ve had a couple of versions of his Meditations (written ca. 167 CE) kicking around on my bookshelf for decades. I’ve dipped into it many times before today, but never really read it for more than some pithy, salient, quotable lines. These translations have all been 19th century ones. This week I started reading a more recent Penguin edition (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964) and was duly impressed and delighted at how much crisper and clearer it reads than the somewhat florid, older ones. So much so that I recently ordered an even more modern translation from Amazon (George Hays, Modern Library, 2003) and started on it, too.

In part my hesitation in the past to read more of the classics has been due to the rather dense prose that many of my translations offered – most of them being published originally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great in their day, they see archaic and stilted today. The newer, modernized translations make these works much more approachable.

For example, here’s the George Long (1862, reprinted in the Harvard Classics series, 1909) translation of the opening of Book XII:

ALL those things at which thou wishest to arrive by a circuitous road, thou canst have now, if thou dost not refuse them to thyself. And this means, if thou wilt take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only conformably to piety and justice.

And here is an 18th century translation by Hutcheson and Moor:

All you desire to obtain by so many windings, you may have at once, if you don’t envy yourself [so great an happiness.] That is to say, if you quit the thoughts of what is past, and commit what is future to providence; and set yourself to regulate well your present conduct, according to the rules of holiness and justice.

Compare these with the 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Books):

All the blessings which you pray to obtain hereafter could be yours today, if you did not deny them to yourself. You have only to be done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply seek to direct the present hour aright into paths of holiness and justice.

Here’s the 2003 Hays’ translation:

Everything you’re trying tor each – by taking the long way around – you could have right now, this moment. If only you’d stop thwarting your own attempts. if only you’d let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present towards reverence and justice.

I’ve also tended to shy away from reading too much of Meditations in part because he also deals with divinity and soul – and I tend more towards the moral and ethical, the philosophic rather than spiritual, writers. But reading through his book now, the Hays’ translation in particular, I find his spirituality less cloying than I had initially.

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