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The Fairness Trap

Slice-of-pieI've been out of the country and am just now catching up on my reading.

One of the pieces I missed is James 's New Yorker column, "The Fairness Trap."  In less than 1,000 words, he explains how our instinctual need for "fairness" is so strong we'll actually sacrifice our well-being to achieve it. 

Dozens of experiments have demonstrated that people will walk away from an offer of free money if they think the offer is unfair even though they would be better off if they simply accepted it.

I put "fairness" in quotation marks because other experiments have shown that our concept of what is fair and unfair is often self-serving, especially when it involves people we don't consider part of our immediate community, i.e., the "other." 

Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this lop-sided sense of fairness was critical to keeping pre-historic clans together and punishing freeloaders. Ironically, as Surweiki suggests, these days it may be making it more difficult to solve political and economic problems that have no perfectly good solutions, only "less bad" ones.




Im_on_auto_pilot_bumper_sticker-p128306861446686757z74sk_400Ever drive to the office and realize on arrival that you don't remember driving?

I think we've all experienced some sense of being on autopilot at one time or another. One of the key learnings to come out of my research for OtherWise is just how much we live on cruise-control. 

 What looks like conscious thought and deliberate behavior is rooted below our levels of awareness. Someone’s in the cockpit, but it’s not who we think.

Some anthropologists speculate a lot of this automatic behavior is the result of evolutionary adaptations to the hostile environment our prehistoric ancestors had to navigate.

  • Gut feelings warned them of danger and attracted them to people who could protect them or ensure the survival of their genes. 
  • Cognitive biases speeded their decision-making by eliminating the need for conscious consideration.
  • Tribal instincts bound them together in small bands and made them suspicious of rival groups.

These feelings, biases, and instincts are hard-wired into us and still shape much -- if not nearly all -- of our behavior.

We call our species homo sapiens, literally “wise man,” but our species’ wisdom isn’t most manifest in the taming of fire or the use of tools. It’s most obvious in our dealings with each other.

Ironically, that’s when our simian heritage is also most apparent, especially in the way we relate to strangers, whether what sets them apart is race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political belief.

Obviously, it helps to learn a little more about people who are unfamiliar to us. But the real key is to learn a little more about ourselves. To exercise the level of mindfulness necessary to turn the autopilot off.

Do that and it becomes a lot easier to see what we have in common even with people who might seem the most different.




Gramps.008This is probably what our grandfather looked like, 12,500 generations removed.  

He almost certainly lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Whether or not his name was Adam, every human being alive today carries his genes.

One of the key learnings for me in writing OtherWise is that most of the time -- in fact, almost all of the time -- we operate on the same gut feelings, cognitive biases, and tribal instincts as gramps here.

  • Gut feelings to ward us from danger and to attract us to people who will protect us or ensure the survival of our genes. 
  • Cognitive biases to speed decision-making in a hostile environment.

Feelings and biases may not be rational, but in snake-infested jungles they can be the key to survival.

Similarly, when our primordial ancestors dropped from the trees and started walking across the savanah, survival favored those who had a innate ability to work in small groups and a natural hostility toward anyone not of the group. 

Those characteristics were so critical that, over a number of generations, they became the norm. And they survive to this day. 

What looks like conscious thought and deliberate behavior is deeply rooted below our levels of awareness. Usually, we're on autopilot. Someone’s in the cockpit, it's just not who we think. 

We call our species homo sapiens, literally “wise man,” but our species’ wisdom isn’t most manifest in the taming of fire or the use of tools. It’s most obvious in our dealings with each other.

Ironically, that’s when our simian roots are also most apparent, especially in the way we relate to strangers.

Becoming OtherWise requires a degree of mindfulness that consumes lots of calories. Going with the flow of our primordial instincts is a lot easier.

But in a smaller, flatter world that really isn't an option. There are just too many strangers, and our lives are too intertwined with their's.

Luckily, our primordial ancestors passed along another instinctual legacy -- the capacity for empathy and understanding. It may have atrophied over the generations, and it's too easily manipulated, but it may be our species new best hope for survival.


Diversity or merit?

Lady JusticeThe Supreme Court will hear a case next fall (Fisher v. University of Texasthat many court watchers believe could threaten affirmative action.

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin outlined the facts of the case better than I can, but the gist of it is that a young white woman claims that she was denied entry to the University of Texas because the school considered applicants' race in making its decision.

It's a thorny issue. Some 50 years after the Civil Rights Act established affirmative action as a tool for correcting past discrimination, many people believe it's time to retire racial preferences as a tool of social engineering.

On the other hand, while conceding that overt discrimination is less prevalent, many other people believe diversity is such an important American ideal that it should continue to be given weight in critical decisions. 

For most people, the whole question boils down a question of balancing fairness and merit.

Now a group of university psychologists have written a paper that shows how affirmative action is actually a tool for making meritocratic decisions. 

Most people assume that standardized test scores -- like the SAT or the LSAT -- are unbiased and the best measure of relative merit.

But literally hundreds of studies have demonstrated that a psychological phenomenon called "stereotype threat" undermines the performance of people in negatively stereotyped groups. The worry of confirming a negative stereotype acts as a "headwind" that prevents them from performing as well as they can.

The psychologists cite a classic series of studies that demonstrate the effect. In one, black students performed worse than white students on a GRE test when it was described as an evaluation of verbal ability, an arena in which Blacks are negatively stereotyped. But when the same test was described as nonevaluative—rendering the stereotype irrelevant—blacks performed as well as whites.

In another study, women performed worse than men on a difficult math test when they were told that men typically outscored women. But when they were told that the test yielded no gender differences—refuting the stereotype—women and men performed equally well.

Based on these and other studies, the psychologists filed a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that "school and work settings should be changed to reduce stereotype threat." Meanwhile, schools and employers should continue to take such factors as race and gender into account in making their admission and hiring decisions.

“In taking affirmative steps,” they wrote, “organizations can promote meritocracy and diversity at once.”



CulturalDiversityIn the years after the Second World War, two seemingly inexorable forces promised an era of convergence, spawning a new global culture and common values.

The first force was the rise of new supra-national institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the European Union. The second was the launch of new communications and information technologies.

Taken together, both developments promised to make the world smaller and less divisive.  

But to the contrary, as David Brooks explains in his column in today's New York Times, we have entered a new era of "segmentation," precisely the opposite of what many expected.

Instead of a common culture and values, Brooks writes, "people in different nations, even people within nations, have become less alike in at least as many ways as they have become more alike." Instead of converging, we diverging.

It's not that the institutions and technologies that were supposed to make the world smaller failed, it's that we misread their impact. Multinational institutions and global media don't create new values, they reinforce pre-existing ones.

For example, Facebook doesn't help people make new friends, it just makes it easier to stay in touch with the old ones. It doesn't help people understand the perspective of others, it reinforces the opinions we already have.

The cognitive illusions and tribal instincts that rule our inner life took millions of years to develop. No "technocratic scheme," as Brooks describes it, will dramatically alter them.

The only real alternative is to educate people about their workings. And then to refine other evolutionary adaptations -- such as empathy -- that are the better angels of our nature.

Which, of course, is the whole point of OtherWise.