The time to enact New Year's resolutions draws closer.
Credit: Csaba Peterdi, Shutterstock
We all know that popular New Year's resolutions involve dieting, exercise and the nixing of bad habits. But what if we could fix things we didn't even know were wrong with us?
Even good people have mental weaknesses. Just ask psychologists, whose research often turns up sour news on the human psyche. We can be jealous and arrogant, willing to look the other way when horrible things are going on, and even the nicest of us harbor subtle racial bias.
In our best New Year's fashion, we asked social scientists to tell us what they see as the worst hidden weaknesses of humans — and whether there's anything we can do to overcome them. Their responses suggest that this year, we should all resolve to see things from others' perspectives.
We Fear the Other
One unflattering trait we share with many other animals is Fear of the Other, which is just the flipside of a rather clinging, excessive and obsessive love of (Just Like) Me. Social psychologists call this "in-group" bias; cognitive psychologists see its advantages in fluent, speeded-up processing of the familiar. We're long used to who we are, and so no real thought is necessary to deal with ourselves. Thus, in order to preserve our precious laziness of thought, we heavily invest in surrounding ourselves with people just like us. We segregate into neighborhoods and work and leisure environments where any others closely approximate us in age, race, income, political allegiance and even sexual orientation or the accepted type of facial hair.
The consequence is that we never get to meet anyone who isn't like us. This, in turn, leads to failing to imagine any Other, and to a loss of desire to even consider the Other as someone who exists, a real human being just like us, except not just like us. At its most innocent, all this fencing-in creates little upticks in closed-mindedness inside one person's skull — missed opportunities for jolts of fun or learning. At its worst, for instance when manipulated by clever demagogues who realize that nothing binds us together more than fear of that ultimate other, the imagined enemy, it leads to the Holocaust, Vietnam, Rwanda, Darfur, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and so on.
What to do? Go visit. Uncozy yourself. Get a move on. Practice loving-kindness with someone truly other. (If you're in academia, maybe take your Republican-voting pariah colleague out for lunch, and listen for a change.) Or, at the very least, next time you find yourself at lunch agreeing with everyone's astute observations, do realize: "Well, duh."
— Paul Verhaeghen, professor of cognition and brain science at Georgia Tech
We indulge in ill-informed stereotypes
We've been busting myths about women since the 1960s; it's time we bust some myths about men. Single in America, a 2011 national study of singles based on the U.S. census and conducted by Match.com (and myself), does this in spades.
This study clearly shows that men are just as eager to marry; 33 percent of both sexes want to say "I do." Moreover, men in every age group are more eager to have children: 51 percent of men age 21 to 34 want kids, while 46 percent of women in this age range yearn for offspring. Men are less picky about a partner, too. Fewer men "must have" or regard it as "very important" to have a mate of the same ethnic background (20 percent of men versus 29 percent of women); and fewer say they "must have" or regard it as "very important" to have a partner of the same religion (17 percent of men versus 28 percent of women). And get this: Men experience love at first sight more often; just as many men under age 35 believe you can stay married to the same person forever (84 percent); and in a committed relationship, men are less likely to want nights out with friends (23 percent versus 35 percent of women); less eager to keep a separate bank account (47 percent versus 66 percent of women); and less keen to take a vacation on their own (8 percent versus 12 percent). [Busted! 6 Gender Myths in the Bedroom and Beyond]
I study the brain in love. My colleagues and I have put over 80 men and women into a brain scanner (MRI), and we found no gender differences in romantic passion. This Single in America study tells it like it is: Men are just as eager to find a partner, fall in love, commit long term and raise a family. And the sooner journalists (particularly those writing for women's magazines), social scientists (particularly those convinced that men are evil), TV and radio talk-show hosts, and all the rest of humanity that berates men begin to embrace these findings, the faster we will find — and keep — the love we want.
— Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and the chief scientific advisor of Match.com
We go with our gut
The emerging view in psychology is that morality is something we feel more than think. Rather than reasoning our way to decide what is right and what is wrong, there is now overwhelming evidence to suggest that moral evaluations are "gut" reactions that we justify after the fact with what seem like principled arguments. This simple truth is the source of both humankind's most ennobling acts of kindness and some of its most-callous and malicious misdeeds.
When victims of misfortune are close to us — when we can see and feel their suffering — we are capable of incredible generosity and self-sacrifice. When our connection to victims is less visceral, however, even when we "know" full well of their suffering in a
cognitive sense, we are often unmoved by their plight and able to rationalize our inaction. Heinous acts committed by people or groups whom we love and admire can be excused as necessary or accidental, just as relatively benign acts of our enemies are often imbued with evil intent and taken as justification for retribution. Our tendency to mistake what we feel for what we think, especially in the realm of moral judgment and
decision-making, plays a central role in intergroup conflict and moral hypocrisy, and because the problem lies as much in our guts as in our minds, it is a challenging weakness to overcome.
My suggestion to friends is to turn the emotional table by submitting judgments to the "shoe on the other foot test." When faced with a difficult moral choice, ask yourself how you would feel and what you would do if a victim of misfortune was your loved one, or the perpetrator of some morally questionable act was you.
— Peter Ditto, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine
We lack empathy
In my view, the most pervasive limitation in people is the ability to accurately understand the feelings and needs of others, and to fully appreciate their own impact on other people.
This ability is typically conceptualized in terms of "empathy," "emotional intelligence," "social intelligence" or "interpersonal intelligence," and it clearly varies in strength from person to person.
While I think that people broadly recognize the value of this ability for selfish gain (e.g., to be an adept communicator, or to "charm" others), it also plays a critical role in caring for others — empathy most certainly does this in motivating altruistic behavior.
As to what can be done about this limitation? Can we strengthen our ability to be in tune with others and be less focused on the self? I think it begins with endeavoring to hold to the "golden rule" that we should treat others as we wish to treated, and also by trying to imagine ourselves on the outside interacting with us — as someone else on the outside, would like who we are very much? Would we consider ourselves kind, compassionate and considerate, or self-centered, selfish and thoughtless?
In short, always try to put yourself in the other's position before speaking or acting —sounds rather obvious and simple, but it turns out to be quite a bit more difficult than one might think, and I believe a persistent challenge in our interpersonal relationships, both casual and close, that we face throughout our emotional and intellectual development.
— Jordan Litman, psychologist at the University of South Florida
We act out of self-preservation
One of the most disturbing things I have learned about people is that they are very self-protective, sometimes at the expense of others. My research in sexual harassment demonstrates that people will blame others in a manner that protects their own interests. People who unconsciously find themselves to be similar to victims of sexual harassment will assign a relatively stronger level of blame to sexual harassers. This is not particularly disturbing; what is disturbing is that people who unconsciously find themselves to be similar to sexual harassers tend to let people off the hook for sexual harassment and even go so far to blame the victims of the harassment. They seem to kick these people (typically women) when they are down. This added insult to injury compounds the negative psychological effects of harassment.
Furthermore, the reason for blaming victims of harassment may relate to the same reason they harass in the first place — an inability to see the perspective of others. Harassers and those similar to harassers cannot really see the world from the perspective of other people. They find their own behavior to be normal, acceptable in part because they simply cannot or refuse to see what it does to other people. If you were to boil this message down to a New Year's resolution, I would say to always try to put yourself in someone else's shoes before you do something stupid. It's amazing what people will do without considering others' feelings.
— Colin Key, professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Martin