Thought & Action

When you ask people if they would deliberately inflict pain on another person, almost none say they would ever do such a thing. In fact, in Milgram’s classic experiments on obedience to authority at least sixty percent (60%) of them were willing to inflict extremely painful shock on another person to gain a scientific understanding of the effects of punishment. Like so many others, I remember being stunned the first time I read these experiments. Since then there have been many experimental replications and even far worse, all too many real-world examples of the very same process.

These studies brought clearly into focus for me the gap between thinking and doing. Individuals tend to overestimate the degree to which they will act morally and they underestimate the degree to which they will succumb to situational pressures to act otherwise. We may intend to act help other people, but when confronted with a distressed person clearly in need of aid, a surprising number fail to render assistance.

I recall a classic example of this discrepancy in a far less serious, everyday setting. As students on a university campus were walking to the library, they were asked to respond to a short survey about environmental issues. The interview dealt with littering and the key question asked was “Should it be everyone’s responsibility to pick up litter when they see it or should it be left for the people whose job it is to pick up?” Ninety-four percent (94%) of the students answered that it was everyone’s responsibility.

Apparently there existed a uniformly positive attitude on the part of the students concerning what one should do about litter. The experimenter then observed 409 students as they passed the litter (crumpled newspaper) that had been placed on the pathway to the library next to a trashcan. Of this number, only eight (1.4%) picked up the litter.

In an article, Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness, in the Times last week Benedict Carey discusses this discrepancy between intentions and actions. He describes an interesting experiment on what he labels the “holier-than-thou effect." This refers to the tendency of individuals to be overly optimistic about their own abilities compared to others—to overestimate their standing in class, their self-control, their sincerity, etc. He says the “self-inflating bias” is even more pronounced on matters of moral judgment and behavior citing the following example:

251 students were asked to predict the likelihood they would buy a daffodil during a campus drive to benefit the American Cancer Society. 83 percent predicted that they would buy at least one flower and that only 56 percent of their peers would. Five weeks later, the researchers found that only about half 43% of these students actually bought a daffodil during the drive. Carey also reports “in other experiments, researchers have found that people similarly overestimate their willingness to do what’s morally right, whether to give to charity, vote or cooperate with a stranger.”

I have always believed that the many studies documenting this gap are only half the story. The other half concerns how to overcome it. Under what conditions do individuals resist the demands or authority, or behave more altruistically, or are they able to translate their moral beliefs into moral action? On these questions we remain pretty much in the dark, although Carey proposes the effect might diminish quickly if people have previous experience(s) in the situation that calls for action.

This suggests that practice or training might narrow the gap between belief and behavior. Currently, there are very few experimental tests of this hypothesis and those that have been undertaken have not been entirely confirming.

In The Call of Stories Robert Coles described this dilemma clearly in discussing the poem Paterson by his friend William Carlos Williams. Patterson, Coles says, “poses one of the oldest dilemmas: the sad commonplace that ideas or ideals, however, erudite and valuable, are by no means synonymous with behavior, that high-sounding abstractions do not necessarily translate into decent or commendable conduct. People can, as he puts it, "talk a big line" and "come out badly wanting in their actions."