Distraction = Less Hypocrisy, More Impartiality ?

On the face of it, this study (described below) seems to challenge the Buddhist ideas that letting go of distraction (labelling it as such, and not following its threads) and practicing mindfulness are tools towards more compassionate action … (also, NYT article on distraction and its deleterious effect on creativity and critical thinking), although it seems perhaps that what’s actually at stake in this study, and in Buddhism as well, is finding an end-route around habitual thinking (and its attendant fantasies, judgments, status-check-ins, comparisons, opinion-making, ego defenses, etc.) rather than the pure benefits of distraction as one way to do it:

“Why We’re All Moral Hypocrites”, by Robin Nixon at LiveScience, posits that we are more lenient on ourselves than others, that we “judge others more severely than we judge ourselves. … [We] are loathe to admit, even to ourselves, that we sometimes behave immorally.  A flattering self-image is correlated with rewards, such as emotional stability, increased motivation and perseverance.”

The article describes a recent study in which 42 students were asked to assgn tasks to themselves or to the ‘next participant.’ The tasks might be “tedious and time-consuming” or “easy and brief.” The students could also opt to have a computer assign the tasks, randomly. The researchers found that 85% of the students “passed up the computer’s objectivity and assigned themselves the short task -– leaving the laborious one to someone else” and they characterised their decision as fair. Another group of 43 students, merely observers of all this, considered the actions unfair.

Then the researchers “‘constrained cognition’ by asking subjects to memorize long strings of numbers. In this greatly distracted state, subjects became impartial. They thought their own transgressions were just as terrible as those of others.”

The analysis: “[W]e are intuitively moral beings, but ‘when we are given time to think about it, we construct arguments about why what we did wasn’t that bad.'” [That explains the hypocrisy, in retrospect, but not the partiality, in the moment — unless perhaps the partiality is habitual, an action formed and/or strengthened by being justified day by day with a succession of persuasive defensive arguments …]

The lead researcher even went so far as to say that their research suggests that “ubiquitous Blackberries and iPods may make society more just.”


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