Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What makes people nice?

No one may ever know unless social psychologists shake off their fascination with jerks.

From this fascinating profile of Joachim Krueger of Brown University and his research. The article, by Ethan Watters, gives extensive examples of research on jerks, misfits and other pathological cases:

Krueger remembers a popular debate among social psychologists over which metaphor best drives home the depth of the mind's failings: Should researchers view the mind as a "cognitive miser," emphasizing our limited resources and reliance on irrelevant clues, or is the mind more accurately depicted as a "totalitarian ego," pursuing self-esteem at the cost of self-deception? Is your mind a Scrooge or a Stalin?

Towards the end, the article does get to a critique of psychologists's focus on bad stuff, and offers some interesting insights about normal, nice people -- you know, people like you and me!

Many researchers have assumed that the logical choice [in a game of Prisoner's Dilemma] is betrayal, since your potential outcomes, depending on what the other prisoner does, are zero or three years—less time on average than the consequences of staying silent (one or five years). Yet when faced with this problem, most laypeople make the illogical choice to remain silent. Why?

The answer, Krueger believes, is that they are employing social projection: They assume that the second prisoner will act the same way they will, and then they incorporate that assumption into the decision-making process.

In other words, if you were to guess how another person would behave in a given situation, your first guess is to say, 'why, he/she would do exactly what I would'! There's nothing pathological about this first guess, and it's certainly nice to know that 'niceness' can emerge out of such thinking.