Friday, April 2, 2010

Psychology of Green Hypocrisy

Psychological studies sometimes come up with strange results.

The UK Guardian reports: "Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, argue that people who wear what they call the 'halo of green consumerism' are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. 'Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours,' they write."

Say what?

Here is a link to the full research report.

Here is a link to a refutation of the study methodology.

The University of Toronto researchers recruited 156 undergrad students and randomly split them into two groups. Each member of the first group had to "buy" up to $25 worth of items at an online store that had mostly green products. Each member of the second group had to "buy" $25 worth of items at a similar online store that had mostly conventional products. Both stores had the same number of products in the same categories and at the same prices.

Would "purchase" of green products make members of group #1 more ethical and altruistic than group #2?

Well, in the next phase, when given an opportunity to share $6 with an anonymous participant, those who had "purchased" in the green store kept more of the money than those who had "purchased" in the conventional store. Thus, conditioning by having done a "good deed" by choosing green products, made participants less altruistic than others who had not been given an opportunity to do that "good deed".

In a later experiment, 90 students were similarly conditioned by having half in group #1, making "purchases" at the green store and half in group #2, at the conventional store.

Then, they were asked to play a computer game for monitary reward where it was easy to lie to increase their rewards. They were also allowed to privately make their own change out of an envelope with money in it, offering an opportunity to steal.

Would "purchase" of green products make members of group #1 more truthful and honest than group #2?

Guess what. The green store participants lied and stole more than the conventional participants. Again, having done a "good deed" licensed the participants to lie and steal! (Even though the participants knew the green and conventional stores were not real.)

The refutation of the study methodology maintains it was flawed because the participants were randomly assigned to the green and conventional groups. Had the experimenters determined which participants were really green consumers and which were not, the results, they say, would have been the reverse.

What do you think?

Ira Glickstein


joel said...

I'm not enthusiastic about such studies. They're difficult to design and iffy when it comes to conclusions. However, I do have an opinion based upon my experiences.

France is very much a socialist country. Even when a "conservative" like Sarkozy is elected, the institutions and people remain socialist in their outlook. I think I've already recounted my experience helping a feeble lady to cross the street in this blog and how others ignored her as she struggled with her load. In a socialist system, people seem to expect the government to take care of the people in need and tend to turn a blind eye toward their neighbors. The same people who passed her by without helping were probably grumbling at the stupidity of the government for designing such a steep pedestrian overpass.

A similar situation occurred when shopping with friends at the supermarket in France. I found the clerks to be abusive and complained to management, but my friend was unperturbed. Her attitude was that she would redress the balance when she did her job. Apparently, psychologically there is some kind of "pay it forward" principle wherein if someone is mean to you, you remain happy, because you can be mean to someone else at your job. I wouldn't be surprised if some people who are kind to Gaia think they're owed something by everyone else and are therefore inclined to cheat anonymously, but that's totally conjecture.

Ira Glickstein said...

"Pay it forward", Joel, usually means if you are nice to strangers when you really do not have to be, they will reciprocate by being nice to someone else, and so on, such that you may be the recipient of the kindness of strangers at some future time when you really need it. Of course, being mean to strangers may also be "paid forward" as you have described based on your extensive time in France. I guess the "Gaia" works in both positive and negative ways.

All psychological research is suspect, but I like the result of the experiments reported in this topic. How else can one explain Al Gore making dire predictions and preaching about carbon footprint while living in an energy hog of a mansion and traveling by private jet? The most charitable explanation is that he is "saving the Earth" and is therefore entitled to use the Earth's resources for his holy mission.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

I agree with Joel’s lack of enthusiasm for human behavior research that depends on such artificial and simplistic protocols. Humans are just too complex. So are their real environments. On the other hand we all enjoy making anecdotal observations about human behavior, like Joel’s theory that in socialist countries people turn a blind eye toward their neighbors.

While I agree with Joel about French behavior, my evidence does not support his theory; because in Sweden, which is also socialist, we found the opposite to be the case. (We lived in Stockholm for a year with two preschool children.) More anecdotally, I found Italians more friendly and helpful than the Swedes, French, or Swiss; and at the time, the Italian Communist Party was dominant. (I think it has morphed into their Democratic Party of the Left.)

As for good design of experiments, like many old physicists, I am strategically against experiments that are performed only to correlate data without first having opposing or alternative conceptual explanatory models or hypotheses that the experiment was explicitly designed to distinguish. This promotes objectivity; otherwise you can usually discover your “favorite” correlations or patterns given enough data.

Admittedly, you sometimes discover an unexpected correlation that prompts you to later work out a theory “explaining” the correlation, but historically this has proved to be a bad (inefficient, costly, and often misleading) strategy because the amount of potential data (and correlations) is virtually infinite and the number of correct hypotheses is very small.

However today, with such prolific data collection (satellites, telescopes, gene sequencers, etc.) and such cheap computer power and memory, we see so-called “data mining” that depends on fancy apps for statistics and color graphics has become a major discipline in fields like astronomy, genetics, and even high energy physics and areas of math. Maybe it is just my aged conservative bias, but I’m not excited by this type of computer-dependent pattern-recognizing research even though I think that is what future research will be like.

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, I disagree with your cynical view about the morality of individual and government policies ("follow the money" and find self-benefit at the heart of the supposed morality.”). As much as you dislike Gore and “get off” on finding inconsistencies between his beliefs and his behavior, I don’t see any evidence for claiming that money and “self-benefit” was the motivation for his crusade against pollution.

Similarly, at the government level, I see no evidence that money and “self-benefit” was the motive for all legislators and presidents who have promoted conservation and protection of resources (Hardin’s “commons”). The exception is the conservative’s ideal, Ronald Reagan, who mocked all conservationists (“A tree is a tree. How many more do you need to look at?”).

Even the maligned Richard Nixon, some of whose political behavior was unethical and illegal, established many conservationist agencies [e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Environmental Policy Act.] His Clean Air Act was noted as one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation ever signed. Do you really think money and self-interest was “at the heart” of his decisions?

Also, when you call Gore a hypocrite and provide your “charitable” explanation, you sound to me mean-spirited and unjust. Hypocrisy is not an inconsistency between what is praised or admired and what is done. Hypocrisy implies knowingly hiding from others your actual motives or feelings.

The long-winded Samuel Johnson said it this way: “Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.”

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard, you quote from Samuel Johnson: “Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, ..."

I don't think Al Gore was a hypocrite when he started jetting around on his anti-CO2 crusade, to save the world from a 20 foot ocean rise, any more than Gen. Patton was a hypocrite when he vigorously fought WWII, to achieve a peaceful world. Both were sincerely convinced of the correctness of their positions and the need to, in the case of Gore expend CO2 and in the case of Patton kill lots of soldiers and civilians, despite their opposite ultimate purposes. Sometimes the shortest path to the north starts out with a jog in the opposite direction.

I even believe Catholic bishops who transferred pedophile priests to cover up their perversions were sincerely doing what they thought best for the Church at the time. Even the pedophiles themselves literally thought Satan made them do it, that their confessions absolved them, and that, in the larger scheme of things, their service to the Church justified their sins against a few boys.

The point is that "him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice" is often sincerely serving some higher principle. While that lets them off of the charge of hypocrisy, it may or may not justify their actions.

The psychological study, flawed as it is, illustrates how doing a "good deed" makes normal human beings feel they have license to cheat, lie, and steal.

Scientists who helped "cook the books" to exaggerate global warming did so because they really believed in the ultimate cause. By now Al Gore and James Hansen and others should realize their alarmist views were way, way overstated. However, they are too invested in these views and their careers (and in the case of Gore investments in carbon trading) are dependent upon continuing fear of human-caused global warming. Their supporters in academia, politics, and some corporations would lose their jobs and contracts if they backed down. That is what I meant by "follow the money".

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

I've just re-read the refutation of the study methodology. They critique the random assignment of student volunteers to the "green" or "conventional" store groups prior to giving them an opportunity to cheat, lie and steal. They say: "Using actual green consumers, would most likely have caused a different effect."

Would that have been a better methodology? Say the researchers asked the student volunteers a series of questions to determine how "green" they actually were (or at least claimed to be). Then they could have given them the opportunity to cheat, lie, and steal.

Of course, had the self-selected "green" group cheated, lied, and stolen more than the "conventional" group, the critics would have said the "green" group were lying in the first place when they claimed to be "green". The problem with psychological research is that both sides always have good explanations when the results do not go their way.

Ira Glickstein