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How Thoughtless, Unethical People Might Just Save Our Planet

By 1 March 2014September 16th, 2021No Comments

I remember being a student at Notre Dame and reading some classic CS Lewis in those required theology classes; a quote of his always stuck with me. Somewhere along the way he was asked in a class he was teaching how to define humility and he answered in a clever way that described what it isn’t. He said, “Let’s just say the humble man never tells you that he is humble, for in doing so violates the very thing he is proclaiming”

This nuanced insight is quite profound and has always stuck with me working as a personal and executive coach for people seeking transformations and wanting that “hidden” nugget of truth and excellence not found in the myriad of self-help exploitations on the market. Amidst these stories, and the recent headlines of stars, politicians, and businessmen “disappointing” us in some way, ethics has become an ever-increasing attribute on the list of what we desire in people. Gone are the days when ethics was a concern when one approached a “bad” situation to decide between two options; rather, we have come to realize in the light of let downs and scandals that we ache for people who can decide between what is good and what is essential in non-conflict-oriented times. Even in politics we are faced with such wild irrationalities that call for a higher level of influencing understanding and behavior change. Take for example today’s CNN headline that notes “At least 62 people were killed in Syria on Thursday as diplomatic efforts continued.”

What may make this goal trickier that we thought in actualizing may have everything to do with the brain’s irrational patterns and hidden illusions around situations when we self-proclaim a value that has some “social desirability” or merit to it. Take a new study that just was released by Harvard Business Review this week:

About one-third of drivers of Prius hybrids failed to yield to pedestrians in a series of experiments on crosswalks in the San Francisco Bay area, giving the brand one of the highest rankings for “unethical driving,” say psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, and a team of colleagues. Drivers of hybrids “who believe they’re saving the Earth may feel entitled to behave unethically in other ways,” says Piff

What is most fascinating about these results are the implications. Does this mean that those who most verbally espouse never cheating on their spouse may indeed be the ones that are most susceptible to doing so? Does this mean that the more “religious right” you are in your ideologies and potentially judgmental tones of others implies you are the one that reeks of those “sins”? Or is it implying that we could use our truly valid “good natures” on behaviors x,y,z to give us wiggle room on behaviors a,b,c? Though I believe much of these are self-protective patterns of the brain that are quite difficult to change, I do believe you can do more to accomplish your behavior goals by doing the following than by spending tons of dough on an expensive self-development seminar that assumes too much you are a rational person:

  1. List your top 10 values you say you live your life by.
  2. Write out evidence from behaviors you show that these are well-lived by you
  3. Find the opposite word of each of these values and write those down
  4. Then ask yourself, “If I am at times between these two words in my life, what types of behaviors or decisions do I make that show some ambivalence?”
  5. Examine those areas as ethical grey areas protected arguably by an espoused ethical orientation
  6. Add in additional behaviors that you feel you do BECAUSE you follow OTHER value-based areas in your life. This linking is powerful.

If you think this is hard to do, you are correct. For your brain is wired to be right, not ethical. But the good news is that some schools are doing something about it. My alma mater, the University of Notre Dame and Deloitte have partnered up to beef up the training and education of traditional ethics to include such wildly diverse areas of neuroscience and behavioral economics. Though it may be heretical to say, only when we do this can we understand why the filmmaker Dan Merchant, who made a great documentary about the hidden hypocrisies in religious living, entitled his documentary, “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers”.

But that may not be nuanced and “true” enough without adding—“by first saving us from our brains.”