Why Appearances Matter More Than Reality

Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian diplomat, philosopher, and writer, wrote in the first book of The Discourses on Livy these words “the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”

That was in the 16th century. A couple of hundred years later, Dan Batson of the University of Kansas ran an experiment. He would lock two experiment participants in different rooms and tell them that they won’t meet. You are one of them. You answer questions from a questionnaire. One person from the team will be rewarded with a raffle ticket for correct answers. You alone decide which of the two of you gets it. You can give it to yourself or the other person. It is up to you. Regardless of how you make the decision, your partner will be told that the decision you made was made by chance. You are also being given a coin and information that 90% of people in the study think that the flip of a coin is the fairest way to make the decision. You are left alone to make the decision. How do you decide? Half of the participants use the coin. Of those who didn’t use the coin, the vast majority of 90%, gave the price to themselves and only 10% to their partner. Those who had previously shown more moral inclinations and cared for others were more likely to use the coin. However, they were not more likely to give the price to their partner. They did the right thing and flipped the coin, only to justify why not follow the results if these came against them. The appearance of morality was more important than the actual reality.

Most people believe they are good and that their actions are motivated by good reasons. Even if they cut in front of you in a queue, cheat on an exam, don’t return a book they borrowed, steal a pen from the office. They still believe they are good and moral. You know, they are in a hurry, everyone cheats, they will return it one day, taking a pen is not really stealing.

We see ourselves and others differently

The discrepancy between our moral judgment of us and others is caused by the fact that while we know our own thoughts, we don’t know the thoughts of others. When we want to judge others, we are left only with their behavior. When we judge ourselves, we, on the other hand, ignore our behavior and focus on our thoughts. This makes us feel that we are better than others. That is, our thoughts are better than the actions of others. When we compare our behavior, we will discover that we are no better and behave the same way as everyone else.

Nick Epley and David Dunning ran a series of experiments that showed this very clearly. They have asked the study participants to predict how they would behave in a game that could be played either selfishly or cooperatively. 84% of participants predicted they would cooperate and guest that only 64% others would do the same. In a real game, then 61% of participants cooperated. In another study, participants would be paid $5 for participation and asked how much they would donate, hypothetically. On average, participants claimed they would donate $2.44 while they predicted others would donate only $1.83. When the researchers came back with the actual donation request, the average donation was $1.53. As you see, we are pretty good at predicting the behavior of others but not much at predicting our own. We believe to be more altruistic than we are.

To keep our self-esteem, we need to hold on to the illusion that we are better than others. The more ambiguous and fuzzy the trait we evaluate, the bigger the disconnect we see between ourselves and others. That is why we believe we are better drivers or leaders than others. Since there are various definitions of what it takes to be a good driver or a good leader, we can pick just the criteria that favor us. Let’s say that you feel you are a good leader. You will find a definition that will align with your self-perceived strengths. Maybe you are a good listener. You then search for evidence of your strength, your listening abilities. When you find it, you stop looking for anything else and claim that you are a great leader.

Jonathan Haidt notes that most of us use what a Harvard psychologist David Perkins calls the “makes-sense” stopping rule. Instead of getting us much evidence from various sources and then making a decision, we work the other way around. We make up our minds and then look for evidence that supports that perspective. When we find something that verifies that our position makes sense, we stop looking. There is nothing malicious about it. The human brain tries to simplify the world around us, and this is one of the ways of doing it. If the pressure is low and the stakes are not particularly high, we are willing to change our opinion if someone else brings evidence that contradicts our original position. We are comfortable changing our minds. We were just too lazy to look for anything that would dispute what made sense to us. However, if the stakes get higher, if our reputation or ego is on the line, we will deliberately ignore any evidence that contradicts us. We will become blind to anything that doesn’t fit our view of the world, and we will discredit or vilify anyone who tries to poke holes in our view of the world. That’s what is often happening in politics and in the post-factual society we live in.

The less ambiguity there is, the more down to earth you will be. While you can claim you are a better leader than others, if I ask you whether you are taller than others, you will be much more realistic as there is little ambiguity. We all agree on how to measure height, and there is not much room for interpretation. Although in the post-factual society, even this can create quite a bit of friction if you would refuse to believe the national statistical data I would give you on the basis that they don’t align with what you see in your family. However, the amount of mental effort to insist on it is much larger than on believing you are a better leader.

There is no easy solution to fixing our misrepresentation of ourselves. Researchers Emily Pronin and Lee Ross tried to teach people about biases and how they influence behavior and then asked them to reconsider what they think about themselves. The results of several studies showed the same. Those who learned about biases were able to identify these biases in others and predict how that would influence the behavior of people around them. However, they completely failed to identify the same impact on their own behavior. They would happily claim that they agree that biases influence people’s actions but that they personally are an exception and are above average. We all believe we see the world as it is, and if someone doesn’t agree with us, it means they don’t have all the facts, or they are biased and blinded by their misguided beliefs. Our brains are unwilling to contemplate that we may not see the world as it really is and that we might be guilty of the same faults we subscribe to others.

Pure evil and high self-esteem

Roy F. Baumeister talks about the myth of pure evil. It is a myth prevalent in society, and it paints a very black and white picture of the world. Evildoers are pure evil, and victims are pure saints. In the effort to simplify the world around us, we oversimplify. We see evil as coming from outside. Outside of ourselves, outside of our in-group. Even questioning this polarized view of the world is seen as a sign of evil.

Yet, very few people are pure evil. Perpetrators don’t misbehave because they are devils. They usually have some reasons. Very often, they overreact to some perceived injustice that was done to them. By using self-serving bias, they misinterpret the world and lash out in retaliation.

According to Baumeister, violence and hate have four distinct causes. Violence is most often used as a means to an end (greed), as a response to threatened egotism (self-esteem), as a misguided effort to do good (idealism), and as a means of getting sadistic pleasure (sadism).

The two most obvious are greed and sadism. People are violent to benefit themselves. They steal or fight because of their greed and ambition. However, this explains only a small portion of evil in the world. The only thing that explains even less is sadism. Sadist cause pain to others for the sheer pleasure it brings to them personally. Luckily there are very few people like this out there.

The most significant causes of evil in the world are traits we generally see as positive but that are taken into extremes: high self-esteem and moral idealism. Those with extremely high self-esteem have unrealistic expectations of the world. Their narcissism is easily threatened by reality, so they lash out. If your self-esteem doesn’t align with your actual capabilities and skills, you are in trouble, and you fight.

High self-esteem explains most of the violence caused by individuals, but it doesn’t explain evil on the grand scale. For that, we need to look at moral idealism. When a group of people believes that violence is a justified means to some moral end, you end up with wars. Throughout history, most of the deaths were caused by religions and ideologies. Think about the religious crusades, race tinted WWII, or the cold war between the communist and capitalist blocks. Each side fought for what they saw as their moral ideal.

Moral principles

When there is a conflict between moral principles and procedural rules, we tend to favor moral principles. For example, when people’s moral mandate is not under threat, their judgment of the Supreme Court’s procedural fairness is independent of their position on public policies related to civil rights, abortion, and other controversial topics. However, when a moral mandate is threatened, people respond by questioning the procedural fairness, and they are likely to exhibit anger and moral outrage. The implication is that ensuring fair procedures doesn’t lead to more acceptance by people whose moral mandate is threatened.

When people have a clear belief about a person’s guilt or innocence before the trial, this moral mandate colors their view of the trial process. In their minds, guilty must be punished, and innocent must be acquitted. Suppose the trial results don’t acquit the perceived innocent defendant or don’t convict the perceived guilty one. In that case, it is seen as unfair, no matter the amount of evidence. Interestingly a death of a perceived guilty person is seen as equally fair regardless of whether it happens as a result of a trial or by vigilantism. The only case when procedural fairness matters is when the guilt is ambiguous, and people don’t have preconceived notions and, therefore, moral mandate.

If you have a strong moral feeling about something, you feel you have a moral mandate. You are willing to break the law or ignore it to punish those you see as evil. This was illustrated by Linda J. Skitka and Elizabeth Mullen in their experiments. They looked at the reasons why when people have strong moral convictions, their acceptance and judgment of outcomes and procedural fairness depends on whether the results support or oppose their views. The researchers found out that people react with anger when the outcomes are not consistent with their moral beliefs, which then colors their views even further. They lash out even more against the outcomes and the procedures.

Moral and aesthetic judgments work the same way. If you like a nice painting, you immediately know whether you like it or not. However, you may have difficulty explaining why you like it. If I press you, your brain is going to invent some reasons why you like it. For example, it uses a lot of red, and that is your favorite color. If I point out that the previous picture you saw also had a lot of red, and you didn’t like it, you will invent another reason. It is the type of brushstrokes that makes all the difference. The thing is, you don’t know why you like it. You just do. And you are subconsciously inventing arguments to persuade me that you know what you are doing on a logical level. The same goes for moral arguments. That’s how disagreements are made. You feel strongly about something, and I have the opposite opinion. Each of us starts inventing arguments why we are correct, and the other person is mistaken. If I point out your argument doesn’t make sense, you won’t accept that I’m right. Instead, you invent another argument. That shows that the original argument you started with wasn’t a real argument why you believed you were correct. It was invented to justify your stance.

We all have potential for good

Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh in The Path mention a parable often used by Chinese philosopher Mencius of a boy playing in the fields and falling into a well. Any one of us would, without a second thought, race towards the well and help the boy. We wouldn’t do it for glory or personal benefit. We would do it to save the child. We would do it because it is the right thing to do. This means that we all have the potential for good. Unfortunately, we often use it only in times of crisis. What if we could live up to our potential all the time?

There is nothing that prevents us from developing this let’s-do-good instinct. Catch yourself every time you do small acts of mischief like gossiping about someone or yelling at others and stop. Take a deep breath and change the way you act. At the same time, catch yourself every time you do something good, like showing gratitude, smiling at others, resolving an unpleasant conversation, helping others, and let yourself experience the good feeling that comes with it. Step by step, over some time, you will internalize gratitude, generosity, and goodness. It will then show positively on your relationships as well as on your happiness.

It is up to you whether you only want to be seen as being good and fair or whether you want to be good and fair. From the perspective of others, it doesn’t matter. The only person who will know the difference is you. Only you can decide whether you will make it an honest reality or join others in their delusional view of you as someone who is good.


What is your take on the topic? Do you believe you are a good person? How does it reflect in your actions? Do you believe those around you are good or bad? Why do you believe that? Are you satisfied with being seen as good, or do you actually care about being a good person?

Photo: Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay.com

For more follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

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