Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Fallacy of Influencing Others

I grew up with ambitions of 'making it big' in many ways. I wanted to be a scientist whose inventions would change the world in the way those of James Watt and Addison did. I wanted to be a teacher under whose tutelage scores of youngsters would imbibe my own ideology and knowledge structure. I always wanted to 'move up the value chain', always wanted to do stuff with bigger impact factor. I wanted to be the man whose achievements (and even the obituary, literally) would feature in the front page!

The realisation of my littleness has most joltingly hit me when I learned to observe how little the various aspects of me, my life, my achievements, my strengths, my insights etc. mean to others. Let me cite a very little example. I have always made it a point to shutdown my computer before leaving office. Very simple reason of saving energy. After all arguments about how ineffective my little move would be in saving the world, I eventually reached the conclusion that it costs me nothing to do it anyway. So, I made it a practice. I routinely kept sharing my thoughts with my colleagues -- people with whom I have always shared great rapport and respect -- and very politely kept requesting them to adopt the simple practice. In spite of all initial resistances falling apart, and in theory accepting my argument, I found not a single person changing his habit! It was a phenomenally frustrating experience. It made me acutely aware of how little the power of argumentation and logic is in front of long-standing habits and attitudes.

My daily life is filled with innumerable experiences of the above kind. I have failed routinely in influencing people through model behaviour. People are exceptionally resistent to change even when you present a flawless example of a triumphant best practice. A large portion of the population doesn't even have faith in the idea that thoughts can be used to tune important behaviour.

I always thought that I was well aware that people take offense if you put your virtues on naked display. Even staking claim on such qualities as modesty, magnanimity, civic sense etc. is very dangerous and immediately invites defensive stance from the onlookers. Far from genuinely appreciating, people try to mock you, tag you as pedantic, or simply overlook the reality to protect themselves from an exposition to questions on themselves. Therefore, I try being polite, even meek, when I realise that my behaviour may make people feel defensive. And yet, I have received stone-cold response to any suggestion of improvement, however little they might be, from every quarter -- strangers, colleagues, elders and youngsters...even family and friends. I have felt poisonous bitterness on how little of my most prized insights, I have ever been able to even mention to people who really matter to me very much. Transferring those insights in effect remains a distant dream in such circumstances.

The Two Types of Virtues

Here, we are talking about two types of virtues. One are selfish ones, while the other are the altruistic types. Just to give a sense of completeness, virtues are benefitial characteristics. If the beneficiary is the self, the virtue is selfish. If the beneficiary is someone else, it is altruistic.

Some examples of selfish virtues are : Being fit, being intelligent, being rich, being knowledgeable, being good-looking etc. Everyone want these virtues maximally. If you see someone else having it more than you, you may love or hate that person, but definitely would like to get ahead of the person in terms of possessing that virtue if possible.

Altruistic virtues: honesty, integrity, hardworkingness, truthfulness, helpfulness...They are tricky ones. People don't necessarily want them. If someone has one such virtue in some amount, he tends to look down on those who seem to have less of it, and tends to consider those who seem to have more of it as pedantic, sometimes overbearing, and sometimes even vain. And the trickiest part of it is that people always hate you for showing these virtues off. Showing off your wealth, or beauty, or one of those selfish virtues, can be pardonable. But to show off you your honesty or magnaminity is unpardonable. Here showing off doesn't merely mean boasting. Even practicing the virtue may be interpreted as showoff. I remember an incident long time back when a gentleman was visiting me in IISc. A professor passed by on a bicycle. I proudly pointed this out to them. To this, this gentleman reacted like, ‘You know, people will always show off their simplicity.’ I was shocked! I asked him why being a professor (read 'intellectual'), who had probably given up a lot in his life much lesser beings had continued enjoying, was expected to be so modest even about his simplicity? I wondered, if you are allowed to show off money, beauty, power, influence, fame, why you aren’t allowed to show off your simplicity!

A very interesting distinction between selfish and altruistic virtues is the proportion of destiny and decision in them. The amount in which you have any of the selfish virtues could largely be due to destiny. For example, how beautiful you are isn't significantly in your own hands. Nor your intelligence or richness. On the other hand, how much of any altruistic virtue you possess appears to be predominantly a matter of decision or choice. For example, how honest a person is is completely dependent on the way he conducts himself volitionally. Whether apparently volitional acts are indeed volitional or are puppets of our genetic makeup is best left to a deeper analysis in the purview of the problem of freewill.

Why Altruistic Virtues are Hard to Imbibe
Why is it so difficult to influence people to observe higher standards of ethics than they presently do? Ethical behaviour is tied to altruistic virtues. And, as mentioned above, the amount in which one has any of those virtues is a matter of decision, not fate. People, particularly adults, find it harder to be caught erring in matters of decision than in matters of destiny. If someone is richer than me, I may envy him, idolise him, may want or not want to be like him. May even want to kill him for money or envy. But in the end, I will take solace in the fact that richness after all is significantly a matter of fate. However, if I find someone behaving more honestly than me, accepting his level of honesty to be a better thing than my level of honesty is equivalent to accepting my mistake in the decision as to how honest I would want to be. The blame of not having enough of that virtue squarely falls on me, my conscious self. You see my point?!

The other reason why people seem to resist accepting ethical superiority in other and accepting ethical lessons from them is because altruism seems closely tied with ego manifested as vanity and pride. Recall the above incident of the gentleman reacting to a professor's simplicity as a sign of his vanity. The reaction was almost a reflex action. Even before conscious analysis sets into motion, we start interpreting, as if by reflex, any altruism in excess to what we have as show off. The behaviour, though may appear strange, is explanable. Ethical behaviour doesn't lend itself to simple explanations of reward and punishment. A lot more than simple cost-benefit analysis goes on when we behave ethically. Therefore, unless we find an ethical stand natively present in us, we react in a puzzled way to any of its appearance. The easiest thing to attribute ethical behaviour (in excess to ours) is to vanity and ego. There may be some truth in that; hence it can't be outright dismissed as absurd. But, it's hard to verify its truth; hence, it should be looked at with scepticism.

Understanding Altruism
Let's give a moment's thought about why be altruistic at all. Perhaps, it will show some ways to bring down the some part of the resistence people (we) show for accepting ethical lessons; and will hopefully help reconcile with the part nothing can be done about.

Above, we mentioned the connection between altruism and ego. There definitely is a part that ego plays in altruistic behaviour. A clear proof of that is seen in children. Most of the 'good' things they initially do, e.g. sharing toys or being gentle with fellows, is all to escape punishment or gain appreciation. A slight bit of honest introspection will indeed reveal (at least it does to me) that many of the altruistic acts we do even when we grow up are still due to our need to be appreciated. An excessive craving for appreciation may lead us to behave altruistically to the extreme, by self-sacrificial acts, even extending to self-destruction.

But again, to attribute all altruism to ego is clearly a mistake. First of all, as many studies show beyond doubt, altruism has survival benefits. And hence, as a genetic trait, it has survived and succeeded. People who are altruistic may be genetically predisposed to behave that way. So, to try and explain away altruistic behaviour completely on the basis of ego boost and vanity would be a mistake.

From a more psychological perspective, altruism is also a matter of faith. We all have our faiths about ourselves, the world we live in and the relation between the two. I consider my example. I like to believe that I live in a world that is, like me (as I think of myself), something good, even divine. Being altruistic gives me a feeling of belongingness. It re-inforces my faith in life and its meaningfulness. I live with a hope that the world can be that good place that it inherently is; and an act that takes it even a tiny step towards it is hugely re-assuring to me. I truly believe that this line of thought is devoid of vanity. Probably, like vanity, it again models altruism as an inherently selfish act. But, in the process, we don't lose any of the beauty that we associate with altruism, because it is devoid of vanity.

Propagation of ethics is hindered by many causes. Two cited above are what I can see. There could be more. The knee-jerk resistence that people display to the idea of true altruism, by attributing it completely to vanity, has its roots in lack of awareness and thought; hence, can be debunked through arguments pointing out other causes of altruism. However, the other type of resistence, the one arising from the resistence to accepting one's mistake in making ethical (0r any) decisions, is a deeper one. I don't see any clear way to deal with this natural problem. I don't know how much of our overall resistence to ethical lessons we feel due to which of the above two causes. I tend to believe that the latter one has a larger share. And that significantly dampens my optimism about there ever being invented a method of imparting ethical improvements on people which is manifold more effective than any that exists.