January 26, 2005

More than Luck

Early last year I posted a short piece, "Mostly Luck", where I drew attention to an interview in Edge with Nassim Taleb and his view that the key factor in whether someone became a millionaire or not was luck. I was reminded of that post by another interview in Edge with the social pyschologist, Philip Zimbardo where he says:

"When you grow up in a privileged environment you want to take credit for the success you see all around, so you become a dispositionalist. You look for character, genes, or family legacy to explain things, because you want to say your father did good things, you did good things, and your kid will do good things. Curiously, if you grow up poor you tend to emphasize external situational factors when trying to understand unusual behavior. When you look around and you see that your father's not working, and you have friends who are selling drugs or their sisters in prostitution, you dont want to say its because theres something inside them that makes them do it, because then theres a sense in which its in your line. Psychologists and social scientists that focus on situations more often than not come from relatively poor, immigrant backgrounds. That's where I came from."

I was going to leave it at that, but writing on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, what he has to say in the rest of the interview seemed too important to neglect. To crudely summarise what he has to say, yes bad people do bad things, but more importantly good people put into bad situations also do bad things. I urge you to read the full interview, where he puts forward a more nuanced argument.

For myself I take away three thoughts from the interview.

The first, is that talk of 'evil' and 'good' and 'bad' people is largely an obstacle to doing anything to create a more decent human world. It simply puts any reasoned explanations and hence any preventive action beyond anything we can do much about.

The second is that if we want people to behave well we should give more attention to designing in civility into our institutions, organisations and built environments. If you like, an extension of Oscar Newman's ideas about defensible space.

The third is that we should do more to celebrate those people who 'do the right thing' even in situations where everything conspires against it. The sad fact is that those extraordinary people are more often punished than acknowledged, despite the lip service we pay to their moral courage. Perhaps, we should create something like a Nobel prize to celebrate those people who display human decency in intolerable situations.

Posted by richard at January 26, 2005 1:55 PM