Thursday, July 30, 2009

Unlucky bastards

First, a shout-out to my homie Esther Pun. She and I were chatting the other day, and the topic of genocide came up (yep, just your usual inane banter). She inspired me to do some writing. Genocide is still too big a topic for me to tackle just yet, so I'll try to place another piece of the puzzle.

Today's topic falls under the heading of system justification. That's the tendency of people in a society to justify the status quo. It's a cognitive bias that manages to quell or circumvent emotions that might otherwise lead to beneficial change.

One statement that reflects this bias is the idea that bad things happen to bad people. Now, while it may be the case that "bad people" bring additional misery to themselves, the bias runs deeper than that. The fascinating discovery I want to share today is how pervasive and irrational the tendency can be.

As usual, I'll save myself some time and you some misery by pointing you to the original piece, this time on "the lucky effect."

For those of you too busy to read this fascinating article, the sum-up is this: when we associate even a few members of a particular group with unlucky outcomes, we tend to see the entire group as deserving of arbitrary misfortune. If I show you that a blue-shirted (!) individual has had is home broken into while a red-shirted one has won the lottery, along with one or two more polarizing examples, you're likely to prefer red-shirted people in general. And presumably what's going on inside your head is a justification that red-shirted people must be somehow deserving of the obviously-random fortunes that have befallen them.

It happens in adults, who should know better, and in children as young as 5, who are presumably too young to have been taught this directly. It's disquieting enough to realize that young children dislike victims of random misfortune, instead of being more compelled to help them. To see that they (and we) generalize this tendency to entire groups is even less inspiring.

What is inspiring, I think, is that we're beginning to investigate these issues scientifically. And as G.I. Joe taught (okay, told) us, knowing is half the battle :) The other half, I think, belongs to the field of contemplative science. Perhaps it's time to devote a post or two to that in the near future...

Monday, July 13, 2009

Imperfection and forgiveness

Wow, almost a month without posting. Will get back on the wagon soon.

Can't do a long post today, but wanted to share some more excerpts from a bookmarked article. This is a piece from earlier this year about empathy and forgiveness. Again, something that perhaps many people know intuitively, but good to see research on it.

I will re-post the entire quote this article picked from the research:

Takaku’s experiments showed that an offended party was more likely to accept an apology, and extend forgiveness, when that offended party had an opportunity to reflect on his or her own “imperfect nature” (p. 506).
[. . .]
Takaku’s research offers important insights on how apologies “work.” Mutual empathy is key. While the offer of an apology may be the result of, and an expression of, the offender’s empathy with the offended party, forgiveness requires empathy from the offended to the offender. Empathy must be experienced by, and communicated by, both parties to the conflict, not simply one or the other. In other words, to be effective in resolving conflict, apology and forgiveness are best viewed as interactive processes, not simply one-sided speech events.

Takaku’s research demonstrates that an offended party has the power to shift the nature of a conflict interaction by reflecting on his or her own “imperfect nature,” developing empathy for the offender, and thus being open to the process of apology and forgiveness. Some people can undertake such reflection on their own; others might need to be prompted toward reflection. However, Takaku also urged caution: care must be taken regarding who prompts the offended party to reflect on his or her own imperfections. For example, if the offending party makes the prompt, it would likely generate resistance on the part of the offended party and actually escalate the conflict.

Takaku’s research also suggests that there could be a benefit from “outsiders” to the conflict (such as friends and family, coaches, therapists, mediators, managers, and others) helping the apology-forgiveness interaction by encouraging empathic reflection on the part of the offended party. But the risk is that, if the prompt is too harsh, directive, insistent, or clumsy, it could generate resistance rather than reflection. I would suggest, on the basis of Takaku’s research, that an appropriate communication approach for such “outsiders” in these circumstances is actually a time-honored strategy for encouraging reflection without creating resistance — active listening (Rogers & Farson, 1987).
Makes so much sense, doesn't it?

The research points out the difficulty of getting the offended party to reflect on his/her "imperfect nature" after the harm is done. I would hope there is research being done on the effects of self-reflective meditation on this ability. In my own experience with Buddhist practice, this is a common theme: by noticing the bilge floating through the practitioner's mind, he may be able to proactively adopt forgiveness as his default stance for conflict resolution instead of relying on it post-hoc.

Thinking on it more: although it can be argued that all religions have as a common goal social harmony, and contain instructions on forgiveness ("let he who is without sin cast the first stone..."), practices such as suggested above seem to go beyond that. For if true, such reflections can be seen as merely ways of adopting more rational and accurate views of reality and human nature. As such, they seem like excellent ways of integrating seemingly spiritual approaches into the inherently empirical methods of science.