Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Choices, Virtues, the Mind

"Think of a reasonably consequential decision or choice you made recently. Tell yourself why you made that choice."

This is how one of the presenters at the previously-referenced faculty development day began her portion of a presentation. She went on to cite research that I'd read in another forum explaining how our decision are often, in fact, influenced by factors in our environment that we may not even be consciously aware of. As she said, "We are good at inventing stories or explanations to describe how we arrived at a certain decision, but actually have little sense of what really went on." For instance, she gave the example of performing some kind of charitable act. We may tell ourselves that we performed some act of kindness because that's the kind of person we are--someone who does good things. The research suggests, however, that we're more likely to be good to others when, for instance, we've just had something good happen to us. Or when we're in a nice environment (for instance, outside a bakery from which wonderful smells are emanating). Likewise, we may not help someone in need because we're in a bad mood, or because we're in a hurry or because we're in an ugly, smelly part of town.

I'd previously read research along these lines, so this wasn't a surprise to me. It's really just an extension of a long history of research going back at least as far as the Milgram experiment, all suggesting that our ethics and behavior are more than a little circumstantial, as opposed to be merely an extension of our "character."

At least, that is, as we commonly think of character. As the presenter noted, our ordinary conception of character seems to be certain characteristics (often thought of in terms of virtues and vices) that we "have" that we then act on. For instance, I am generous, so I give things freely to other people. I am honest, so I tell the truth. I am lazy, so I sit around eating Cheetos and putting off my work. It turns out that it's more complicated than that.

I think Aristotle, over 2300 years ago, had some handle on this, or at least helps point the way.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
In other words, these "characteristics" are simply ways that we characteristically react, ways that we respond more often than not (at least in view of the person judging us to be so). It is, though, too simplistic to say, simply because environmental factors play a role, that decision making--moral or otherwise--is merely a matter of context. Even in the original studies, there are people who go against the statistical tendencies, who behave a particular way despite their circumstances. We can't discount the effect that environment can have. As educators, for instance, we should be keenly aware of the kind of environment we are creating for our students both inside and outside the classroom. Part of what we are doing, I suspect, if we're doing things right, is creating an environment where students will build habits of excellence or virtue (along these lines, I think I need to read more about the Habits of Mind). We should also be educating our students to be more conscious of the subtle influences can alter their behavior away from what they would want their behavior to be. Of course, we adults need to cultivate the same consciousness.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is true. When I was a young teenager, I lied fairly often and was very good at it. If I was in an uncomfortable spot, a good lie just tripped convincingly off my tongue. At the time, I was living in an environment where lying was common and even expected. Questions were asked with the specific understanding that the answer was not to be an honest one.

    In college, I actually had a therapist teach me to tell the truth, and I quickly learned how preferable it is. Now, it very seldom even occurs to me to lie--only when I am in a particularly tight jam, and even then, I am so uncomfortable lying that I usually tell the truth. You have no idea how hard the whole Santa Claus thing was for me with my kids. Really.