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Believe the Hype – 9/30/2012

The cook awoke to a noise in the night. He ran to the kitchen and caught the young monk there, stealing food from the monastery pantry. Only a few nights before, he had found the same novice in just the same place committing just the same offense. So now again, more exasperated than before, the cook went to the master of the monastery, the great Zen teacher Bankei Totaku, to report the thief’s crime in hopes that he would be punished.

Bankei thanked the cook again for his attentiveness, but he did not expel the young monk with the greedy stomach, nor did he make any public showing of his anger or displeasure with him. The cook accepted this, but the other students did not. “Why should someone who does not know right from wrong be allowed to remain among us?” they asked each other. Together they presented a petition to their master, vowing to each leave the monastery if the thief was not forced to leave.

The next day, the master assembled all of his students, including the novice who had been caught stealing food. He told them that they each had more to learn, and he did not wish to see any of them go. “But, this man,” he said of the thief, to the students who had signed the petition against him, “this man has only shown that he also has much to learn. And so he will remain here, even as my only student.”[i]

As human beings we have a tendency to divide not just ideas or behaviors but also all too often people, into the categories of good and bad. Not surprisingly, most of us tend to put ourselves in the first category, and the way we treat other people has a lot to do with whether we view them as being good or bad. That black and white way of viewing the world is pervasive, even if we know intuitively or intellectually that it isn’t right, because there is an ease and a convenience – even a comfort to it. As Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in the Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Still, because we view our lives from the inside, and everyone else’s from the outside, we have the opportunity to justify our own actions and choices to ourselves. So we can get creative in our internal explanation for why some moral or ethical rule we believe we cherish does not apply to us, or to our situation. The psychologist Albert Bandura called this “moral disengagement”. For instance: I think of myself as a safe driver, and someone who obeys the rules of the road. When people buzz by me on the highway, I shake my head and occasionally mutter unfriendly sentiments at them. But I grant myself certain exceptions. Right after you cross the Salem bridge, there’s a long straight-away before you get to the first intersection. It has one of those signs that tells you your speed, and the sign flashes at you if you go too far over the limit. Every time that it catches me, I let myself off the hook with the rationalization that the speed limit on that stretch is unreasonably low.

This process comes in all shapes and sizes; it’s the same way a person might justify to themselves cheating on a spouse, stealing from an employer or jumping off the wagon. I could certainly offer arguments for why I think any of those things is worse than going seven or eight miles over the speed limit on a clear roadway, but justifying my justifications might start to sound like the same process doubling back on itself. And in a way that’s what some new research is suggesting: that moral disengagement has a cumulative effect. In a series of studies, researchers gave subjects a questionnaire to determine how strongly they felt about cheating in the abstract. They also had participants read an honor code, followed by taking an actual test – just simple math problems. They were paid a small amount for each correct answer (a motive to cheat) and reported their own scores (an opportunity for it). Finally, they were asked to fill out the same questionnaire from the beginning.

What this process found was that, unsurprisingly, some people who participated cheated on the test. After having cheated, their answers on the ethics questionnaire tended to shift, even in that short period of time. Having broken a moral rule for themselves, they took a more casual attitude towards the same rule in general. In fact, they even showed less ability to recall the details of the honor code they were given before the test when asked about it.[ii]

Part of what may be going on in a scenario like this something called self-signaling. It hinges on the idea that rather than always understanding our own motives and reasons for every choice we make, we are actually constantly learning about ourselves in the same way that we learn about others: by observing what we do. Our sense of who we are and what sort of decisions we’re inclined to make comes from the things we know we’ve done before: our existing patterns and habits and behaviors. So if you floss your teeth every night, it’s not so much because you choose, independent of time and experience, to floss again and again, night after night. Each night’s decision is informed by and builds on what came before: you watched yourself do it before, so you’re more inclined to do it again. You become the sort of person who flosses every night by flossing every night.

But the signals we send ourselves are more broad and complicated than this. In another study, people were given a pair of nice sunglasses and were told either that they were high-end designer glasses, or that they were knock-offs, or they were not told anything at all. They spent some time wearing the glasses, and then they were given some very simple math problems to solve – with very small payments for each correct question, just as in the first study, and again they had an opportunity to cheat. People who were told they were wearing fancy glasses were slightly less likely to cheat than people who weren’t told anything about them. But the folks who were told they were wearing fakes were roughly twice as likely to cheat: 70% of them did so.

Just knowing (or thinking they knew) that they were wearing knock-off sunglasses seemed to shift the self-image of the participants towards less honest

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choices. And it also seemed to affect their attitudes towards other people: the team ran a different version of the experiment where they gave people the same experience with the sunglasses and had them answer a different set of questions. These were questions about trust, estimating how likely someone else was to cheat in imaginary scenarios, and giving their opinion of how often others are lying when they say things like, “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was terrible.” Again, those who thought they were wearing counterfeit sunglasses were more likely to assume that others would lie or cheat.[iii]

All of this points to a connection between the actions and choices we make, even the seemingly small and minor ones. Our behaviors, helpful or hurtful, kind or inconsiderate, compound each other. With every moment we live we are building and rebuilding the person we understand ourselves to be. And while we can’t go back and change our past, we are always the stewards of our present. Having made mistakes before, it is easier to make the same mistake again, but it is always possible to make a new choice, and begin to change our own story about ourselves.

In the Parable of the Sower, one of the stories attributed to the teacher Jesus, the seeds the sower cast on the ground fell in four different places. Some by the way, where they were eaten by birds. Some on stone, where it sprouted but withered away for the lack of roots. Some among thorn bushes, which choked the seedlings before they could bear fruit, and some on fertile ground, where the seeds could grow and flourish. Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that in every human life there is a seed of possibility and potential. Every moment is like one of those four patches of soil, and while we never control everything about the present in

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which we find ourselves, we always have some choice to make, and those choices shape who we are, and how the seed within us grows or does not.

The really good news here is that just as more selfish behaviors seem to feed each other, there is also evidence that the same is true for kindness and generosity of spirit. To explain this I’m going to tell you about one more study. This study began with another math quiz, and it seems possible now that I am training you all now to be extremely suspicious whenever a person in a lab coat offers to pay you to answer random math problems. After the test,

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the researcher running the experiment would grade each person’s answers, pay them according to their number of correct answers, and then shred their test sheet.

In some sessions, the grader would run out of money just before reaching the last participant, and leave to get more. While the person in authority was gone, that last waiting person would shred their sheet on their own, and explain on the grader’s return that they had completed all the questions correctly; they were then paid the maximum amount, more than anyone else in the room had earned with their incomplete exams. The cheater was a plant – they were in on the whole thing and it was carefully choreographed. So everyone who was actually participating in the study as a normal subject took a test with very hard questions that they didn’t have enough time for, and then saw one of their fellow test-takers blatantly cheat and get away with it.

In the second part of the activity, the participants were told they were studying the sense of taste, and that they had to prepare a taste sample for one of the other people in the group: the person they had just seen cheat. Creating the sample meant pouring hot sauce into a cup for the cheater to taste; the amount was up to them. Those who saw the cheating poured in three times as much, on average. But there was another variation to the study. In some groups, before the test was completed one of the participants, another plant, began to cry and asked to be excused from the study, explaining that her brother had recently received a terminal diagnosis. People who saw this happen and saw the other confederate cheat didn’t give him any more hot sauce than people who saw neither. Feeling compassion towards anyone led them to be more kindhearted towards even someone they might otherwise have disliked.[iv]

Like the students in Bankei’s monastery, each of us has different things to learn, each of us are at different stages along our path. And each of us has, and deserves, an opportunity to realize our potential for healing the world, if we only believe that it is there in us, and in everyone else as well. We are imperfect, but trainable. Just telling ourselves that we are good, or knowing in advance the right thing to do, won’t make us good. In fact, it is easy for us to rationalize our way past many moral rules. But, the decisions we make and the actions we take build and shape our moral character, throughout our entire lives. So to move towards being the people we aspire to be, that we need to be in order to work toward a finer world, we need opportunities to practice compassion and cultivate a generous spirit. As your spiritual community, this congregation offers you numerous opportunities to do just that by volunteering with our Tuesday Night Supper program, teaching a class in our Sunday School, connecting with others in one of our Small Group Ministry circles, or just building a practice of being in community by joining us for worship each Sunday. As we live out the covenant we share as a congregation, we signal each other in the direction of our best and highest selves.

[i] This version of an old story about the historical Zen teacher Bankei is based on a version from Sarah Conover’s collection Kindness (Eastern Washington University Press, 2001).


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