Radiolab, one of my favourite things on the internet, ran an episode on morality a few years ago. The main question they asked was whether our sense of morality is something we are born with or something we learn. If it is the latter, then how? The one-hour story is worth your time, but there is one aspect of the three-part story that I want to discuss.
In the first part, they observed chimps to find that even among our primate cousins there exists a rudimentary system of morality. Their example comes from how these chimps share the food that is given to a group. Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that each one of us has this rudimentary level of morality that we have inherited through millions of years of evolution—this is the “inner chimp” hypothesis as one scientist puts it.
In humans this inner chimp starts acting when we are two or three years old. And then we refine it as we go through the experience of life. Most of this refinement, not surprisingly, happens when we are kids, as we see in the second part in the episode, which involved an example from the school life of Amy O’Leary, now a New York Times reporter.
In grade four, one of Amy’s teacher got the kids to play a game that would help them learn some history. The game was called Homestead and it was something like Monopoly where each student received certain resources and had to play by simple rules to win. The main rule of the game was: “Do what you think is right.”
Amy cheated. She looted some of her classmates who wanted to be part of an in-group and even flooded the market with fake money. The teacher who ran the game realised what was happening and called a meeting of those who were involved. He asked Amy, who had become a leader by now, “What are you going to do?”
When she said “nothing”, the teacher used it as one of those “teachable” moments and showed his disappointment in her without directly intervening in the game. That look on her teacher’s face has stuck with Amy for all her life.
Just as she finished telling the story, I was flooded with memories of the many guilty moments that have left such moral lessons in my life.
These moments are painful. Most of them involve a scene at the end where my mum is tired of reprimanding me, or my dad is about to get angry, which happened on rare occasions and terrified the hell out of me. Some are absolutely clear, as if the expressions on people’s faces were recorded on a photographic plate in my head. Others are vague, with the characteristic fog that blurs the details leaving only a strong sense of shame.
This I’m sure has happened to many of us. I asked a few of my friends and all seemed to share anecdotes of times they remember when they did something wrong, but only realised that it in hindsight. A painful lesson was learnt and they carried it for all their life.
One such lesson that I have etched into me has helped me tremendously. It involves mischief and feedback.
Beat me to it
As a naughty child I may have done wrong things, but mostly I did annoying things. Of course, in my head, I was only having fun and that was no crime. But people around me seemed to have low tolerance, and I was told off too many times. I hated it. Mostly because I wasn’t given a proper reason for why my actions were annoying. Of course, if I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, I wasn’t going to learn to do the right thing.
That is why the annual school open day was the worst day of the year. It gave the teachers an opportunity to complain to my parents and get the guilt off their chest. They did this in a polite manner, which I always thought was wrong. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk to me in a polite manner in the first place?
All that admonishment left scars. It might have taught me something about morality, but more importantly it gave me a really useful hack.
In hindsight, I realise that I didn’t understand the reason for stopping me because my natural empathy levels were low. I had that realisation partly because even as an adult I sometimes struggle with it. And to counter my lack of empathy, I developed a system of wanting a constant stream of feedback. I want to know as often and as early as possible if I’m going wrong somewhere.
But I also needed to develop a thick skin. When you are open to feedback, some would be constructive and much hurtful. This is the reason, as the thinker Seth Godin puts it, adults don’t seek feedback as often as they should.
When you can get this system to work, however, it’s absolutely fantastic. It is the best productivity hack I know for becoming better at something quickly: ride the cycle of practice and feedback. It has been a painful but useful lesson.
Image credit: Zen