Thursday, May 7, 2009

NY Times on Righteousness

NY Times on Righteousness and the "Holier-than-thou effect"

Many studies have shown what has come to be known as the Lake Wobegon Effect: the human tendency to overestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others. It's named after a fictional town in which, supposedly, all children are above average.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the effect holds for such virtues as righteousness: we tend to believe we're morally superior to those around us. You've probably seen it manifest countless times, in the form of cocktail party conversations that go something like this:
Good Guy #1: Man, did you hear about that latest Wall Street scandal?

Good Guy #2: Oh yeah! And to think, those BJH employees are still accepting their annual bonuses!

GG1: The gall! I would never do something as obviously immoral as that!

GG2: So true! If only we Good People were more plentiful... Hey I'm gonna go grab some more caviar. Refill on your champagne?

Dr. Nicholas Epley summarizes it best in a quote from the article:
“The problem with these holier-than-thou assessments is not only that we overestimate how we would have behaved. It’s also that we blame every crisis or scandal on failure of character — you know, if we just fire all the immoral Wall Street bankers and replace them with moral ones, we’ll solve the problem.”

This theme will come up over and over again: imagining that they, the forces of evil and stupidity, are what's causing misery for us, the good people of the world, is not merely naive and shortsighted. It's also a major hindrance to discovering a practical solution to the problems we face.

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