Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Future Virtues and Current Choices

What we say we want is not always what we do, but that doesn't mean that we are always lying or deceiving ourselves (although we may do that too).  What we say is often what we really want, even if we sometimes stumble in practicing what we preach.  That might seem self-evident to therapists and priests, but it poses a big problem for economists and policy makers (whose models usually assume that we reveal our true preferences in deed and not word).  As I argue, our stated preferences may be harder to model but, in looking to the future, also tend to be more pro-social, more concerned with the common good.

It turns out there is some experimental proof for this idea.  Tal Eyal, Nira Liberman, and Yaacov Trope have devised studies that suggest that "people judge immoral acts as more offensive and moral acts as more virtuous when the acts are psychologically distant than near. This is because people construe more distant situations in terms of moral principles, rather than attenuating situation-specific considerations" (from a 2008 article "Judging near and distant virtue and vice" in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).  

This has implications not only in the rarefied world of virtue studies.  It turns out that we act in ways counter to what we say we want all the time in little ways. The NY Times Sunday reported on research by Alessandro Acquisti that shows that people say they place a high value on the privacy of their personal data, but are quick to give that up in the moment when filling out online forms.

We sometimes need a little help to do what we want to do; paradoxically, sometimes regulation and restrictions can help us be more free to be who we want to be.