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Apr. 5 2010 — 12:54 pm | 537 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

I’m sorry, I’ve changed, I promise

Many people who have never even stepped foot into a 12-step recovery room have nevertheless heard of the 9th step. That’s the part where recovering alcoholics and addicts make amends to people they have harmed over the years, and it’s the most public part of an otherwise very private process. There is even a Seinfeld episode that pokes good-hearted fun at the 9th step.

This step also resonates widely because, to one degree or another, we all have to do 9th step work at some point—even if we don’t call it that. In psychological terms, the 9th step is about trust recovery—apologizing, promising change, insisting we’ve changed—really. Addicts are taught that righting wronged relationships—at least trying to reestablish trust—is a cornerstone of sobriety.

But it’s not always easy. And indeed recovering addicts are warned that some wronged people may never accept the proffered amends. That’s true of trust violations in general: It appears that some people are quick to forgive, where others see only burnt bridges. Why is that? Is there a fundamental psychological difference between those who accept reparations readily and those who do not? And can the unforgiving be brought around?

A new study offers some insight into the psychology of trust—both violation and repair. University of Pennsylvania psychological scientist Maurice Schweitzer, an expert on organizations and decision making, decided to explore the idea of trust recovery in the lab. He and his colleagues—Michael Haselhuhn and Alison Wood—wanted to see if basic beliefs about moral “character” influence trust violations and forgiveness. They also wanted to see if they could modify those beliefs—and in doing so make people more or less forgiving.

The scientists recruited a large group of volunteers to play an elaborate game involving breaches of trust and reparations. But before the game started, they primed the volunteers with different beliefs about moral character. Some were nudged to believe that people can change—that people can and do become more ethical and trustworthy if they sincerely set their minds to it. The others were primed with the opposite belief—basically that scoundrels will always be scoundrels. This core belief is surprisingly easy to manipulate, and the researchers did it here simply by having the volunteers read essays arguing for one belief or the other.

The trust game that followed goes like this: You have $6, which you can either keep or give to another person. If you give it away, it triples in value to $18, which the recipient can either keep or split with you, $9 apiece. So initially giving away the $6 is obviously an act of trust. But in order to study trust recovery, the scientists put the volunteers through several rounds of the game. In the early rounds, the recipient (actually a computer) violated trust by keeping the $6 a couple times in a row. Then the recipient apologized and promised to be more trustworthy from now on. Then there was one final opportunity to be either trusting or not.

So does believing in the possibility of change shape people’s ability to forgive—and trust again? It does, dramatically. As the scientists report on-line in the journal Psychological Science, they easily eroded trust and they also easily restored it—but only in those who believed in moral improvement. Those who believed in a fixed moral character, incapable of change, were much less likely to regain their trust after they were betrayed.

These results have practical implications for anyone trying to make amends and reestablish trust—in recovery, in business, in love. Apologies and promises may not be enough in some cases, and indeed it may be more effective to send a convincing message about the human potential for real moral transformation. The best way to send that message, of course, may be to act like a changed person. In the rooms of recovery, that’s called a “living amends.”

Mar. 24 2010 — 3:43 pm | 1,395 views | 1 recommendations | 11 comments

Repeal health care reform? The brain says no

Republican lawmakers are understandably chagrined over this week’s historic enactment of health care reform. After all, the legislation was passed and signed over their histrionics and without any constructive input from their side of the aisle, so they’re feeling irrelevant and impotent. That explains why they’re already making blustery threats to repeal this transformative piece of social law.

But it is just bluster. They won’t repeal the law—not for political reasons but for psychological reasons. Let me explain.

One of the cornerstone principles of cognitive psychology—the study of how we think—is the so-called default heuristic. The default heuristic, simply paraphrased, says that we won’t make the mental effort of choosing if we don’t have to. It’s much easier, cognitively, to punt, to go with the flow, to default to the status quo.

Here’s a famous example from the literature: About 28 percent of Americans are potential organ donors. That is, if they died tragically, their kidneys and heart would go to someone waiting for a transplant. In France, 99.9 percent of citizens are potential donors. Why would this be? Does altruism run in the French character? Is their moral training superior? Well, it’s actually much simpler: In most states in the U.S., the default position for organ donation is “no donation.” You must make the effort of deciding if you want to become a potential donor. In France it’s the opposite. Unless you make the effort to opt out, you are by default an organ donor. And it’s easier for the brain (French or American) not to trump policy. Thus it’s better to have kidney failure in Paris than in Washington, DC.

Why don’t people second-guess the status quo more often? Well, think about your typical day. You have a job to do, errands to run, perhaps you have a sick kid to worry about. Where does thinking about organ donation fit into those priorities? Plus, even if you do think about it and decide to assert yourself and become a donor, there’s the paperwork. Nobody is going to hand-deliver it to you. Maybe you’ll just watch TV instead.

You get the idea. Stress, fatigue, other demands—these are all what psychologists call cognitive load. Our brains do not have infinite capacity; indeed we have very limited processing capacity, which is why it’s so hard to juggle mental tasks. Our minds tire quickly, so we need to prioritize our mentally exhausting tasks. And not to put too fine a point on it, repealing the law of the land is probably not most people’s highest priority.

In psychological terms, as soon as President Obama signed the health care reform bill into law, it became the collective default position for millions of Americans—much like organ donor policy. There would have to be a compelling personal reason to spend time and effort on undoing the law—rather than, say, cooking a nice dinner or reading a good novel. Most Americans—except for a few vile and marginal tea-partyers—are going to forget about health care reform quickly. There are too many other things competing for limited energy.

Very few social programs are undone, and that’s because the brain’s default heuristic prefers consistency to waffling. Commentators are right to remind us of the brouhaha over Social Security when the idea was first broached. Opponents used the same hyperbole that tea-partyers are using today. But as soon as it became law over their objections, the energy dissipated as people returned to their workaday lives. And now, of course, it’s a default position that even Republicans consider sacred.

Mar. 17 2010 — 4:30 pm | 82 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Emotions by the roomful

What makes a “bad apple” bad? New research on people who suck the air out of every room:

We’re Only Human: Emotions by the roomful

Mar. 12 2010 — 7:20 am | 61 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

We’re Only Human: A willingness to wonder


The latest in a growing collection on the Science of Recovery:


We’re Only Human A willingness to wonder.

Mar. 10 2010 — 4:13 pm | 266 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

The paradox of green cred

2000-2003 Toyota Prius photographed in College...

Image via Wikipedia

My office shares a floor with the Sierra Club. So oftentimes the shared men’s room on the floor is dark when I enter it. The lights have been turned off, either as an act of energy conservation or as a gentle reminder to the rest of us, or both. I don’t mind this. I simply turn the lights on. And I usually remember to turn them off again as I leave.

So if darkening the men’s room is meant to prime green thinking, it works. And not just green thinking—communal behavior as well. I feel better when I’m reminded to turn out the lights, like I’m doing my part.

But how far does such persuasion go? After all, switching the lights off costs me nothing. What if I make a real sacrifice, buying a hybrid or suffering without the AC? Will that make me even a better citizen?

There are theoretical reasons to think not. Gentle reminders may prime our communitarian impulses, but actual sacrifices may have the opposite, paradoxical, effect. Sacrifices may trigger out moral thermostat, giving us the license to act badly in some other unrelated domain.

That, at least, is the idea that two University of Toronto psychologists recently set out to test in the laboratory. Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong first tested the effects of mere exposure to green products, which symbolize high ethical and humanitarian values. They had volunteers visit on-line stores, some offering mostly environmentally friendly products, the others mostly conventional products. No purchases were made; the volunteers just “walked” the aisles of one store or the other.

Hanging around the eco-store is the equivalent of seeing a conservation advertisement on TV, or entering a darkened men’s room. And its effects were striking. The volunteers who were primed for  green thinking were much more altruistic in a subsequent task; they gave away more money than average. In short, they were more cooperative citizens.

But here’s the interesting part. When they had the volunteers actually make purchases in the two different stores, the results were reversed. That is, the volunteers who made green purchases were more self-centered later on. It’s as if making a moral sacrifice establishes moral credentials, which subsequently licenses deviant behavior. Or put another way, we build up moral chits, which we can redeem later by acting selfishly.

If you think that’s disturbing, it gets worse. In a separate experiment, the psychologists created the same shopping scenario, with some making green purchases and others conventional purchases. Then they had them participate in an elaborate game. The details are complicated, but the game basically created an opportunity for volunteers to profit by lying about their performance on a task—and also to steal money from a till. And they did both. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, those with green cred were bigger liars and thieves, presumably because they believed they had “earned” the right to transgress with impunity.


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    About Me

    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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    We’re Only Human

    For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit my “We’re Only Human” blog. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.