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A Life Philosophic

The power of second thoughts

There are so many homeless people on the streets of Britain that I rarely stop for those asking for help. I try, at least, to acknowledge their existence with a quick “sorry” or sometimes just a pathetic “what can I do?” shrug. So it was not exceptional when I raced past a man in London last week with no more than a mumbled apology.

Ten or twenty yards later, however, I stopped. I turned to see the man was still in sight, meandering in my direction. I gestured to him to follow me, pointing to a Prêt across the road. I got him lunch and went on my way.

Let me make it clear: I am not particularly altruistic. I give virtually none of my free time to voluntary work and less of my money than I think I should. I’m telling the story not to signal my virtue, but because of why, on this occasion, I went back to offer the help I had first refused.

John Darley and Daniel Batson

I am sure many of you have heard about John Darley and Daniel Batson’s 1973 paper in which they tested people’s willingness to stop to help someone in evident and acute need. One of their key findings was that simply being in a bit of hurry for a non-urgent appointment massively reduced the likelihood of acting as a good Samaritan. Whereas 63% of experimental subjects stopped to help when not in a hurry, only 10% did when they were.

People often say that such findings show how amoral people are and that the real reasons why we are or are not good are largely situational. Character or virtue has nothing to do with it. What such Jeremiahs ignore is the possibility that knowing more about these hitherto unknown mechanisms might enable us to counter them.

This is exactly what happened on the London street. I was in a hurry, running slightly late for a meeting. So when I observed myself brushing off this middle-aged, foreign man begging for food in a cold, harsh city, I realised that I was acting exactly as those people in Darley and Batson’s experiment had. This made me reconsider my actions.

Although the plight of the homeless is terrible, it’s debatable whether individuals can do anything to help, and in London at least there is no shortage of places offering food. However, I do offer the occasional gift of food to at least give some recognition of humanity, a signal to recipient that the world has not stopped caring and a check on my own incipient indifference. Realising how easily I had passed him by made me think now was a good time to issue such a challenge and help someone who deserved a hot lunch at least as much as I did.

My point in telling the story is simply to show how we are not condemned always to act according to unconscious prompts or to follow the distorted thinking driven by our cognitive biases. Our weapons against the hidden springs of thought and action are simple: more knowledge of how they work and getting into the habit of questioning, forcing the second thought that might challenge the first.

In our thinking, this means little more than developing the habit of asking “Is that really true?” of factual claims and “Does that really follow?” of arguments. Philosophy and critical thinking can alert us to the many specific ways in which conclusions do not follow, but I think knowing these details is less important than developing the questioning habit. Someone who stops to think will usually be able to spot if a conclusion doesn’t follow even if they don’t know the technical name of the fallacy, and without that habit those who know their ad hominem from their modus ponens are as gullible as anyone else.

Countering the kinds of cognitive biases uncovered by psychology is more difficult, and even people like Daniel Kahneman have suggested it’s often impossible to do so. I’m more hopeful. It takes two things: reminding yourself of the biases often enough so that they move closer to the forefront of consciousness; and then regularly checking your own reactions rather than simply accepting them.

To give another example, implicit bias is hard to counter and no-one can claim to be free of it. But people can become more aware of it so that when they find themselves, say, more impressed by a male speaker than a female one, they can check whether that’s really because the former is saying smarter things than the latter.

We’re never going to be free of the distortions of automatic first thoughts. But by getting into the habit of having second, questioning ones, we can at least be less under their spell. The habit of thinking really can challenge unthinking habits.


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