How bad times make for good conduct
The FBI recently reported a precipitous decline in 2009 crime rates. Last year's 5 percent drop extends a trend that corresponds almost exactly with the current recession. Criminologists and sociologists are mystified; this just shouldn't happen. Why not? Much of social science has embraced the same assumption that economists make--that bad times make for bad conduct. But this assumption is as flawed when interpreting crime patterns as it is broader social ones, especially when it comes to the corporate world.
Conventional wisdom holds that during tough stretches such as the feeble, disheartening economic climate that's gripping the nation, the lines between right and wrong blur. Reliably decent people, whether on the street or in the boardroom, find the compromising conditions in which they live sufficient justification to bend the rules, to find grey hues in colors otherwise refracted as black and white, and to excuse their own transgressions as externally driven. No reproach of personal character is evoked when one acts as the necessity demands. "It's not my fault," one might protest. "I'd lose my job if I didn't do it!" Or, "Come on, others are getting their fair share, why not me?"
This line of reasoning is a chief product of several hundreds of years of economic theory that has been absorbed into the public consciousness. From Adam Smith through David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, and, recently, Milton Freeman, economists interested in big issues like the allocation of national resources have had to make assumptions about what motivates average folk. The answer? Self-interest.
It's perfectly reasonable to suspect self-interest is an undeniable human quality. Anyone who's raised children knows that no matter how nurturing and generous the environment, kids are self-centered little seeds way before life's lessons have hardened them. And there is, to be sure, truth to this egocentric picture of human nature. But it doesn't nearly explain the whole story.
Economics predicts that in good times, self-interest is satisfied and thus more charitable, civilized behavior trumps baser instinct. The full creature gives the hungry one a turn at the trough. There's no reason to commit a crime when one's life is sated, right? It's a nice thought, but it doesn't square with recent history.
The two decades of economic prosperity prior to 2007 are examples of how good times don't always make for good conduct. At the zenith of America's success, neither Wall Street nor the Capitol seemed overly concerned with the ethical minutiae that, when woven together, describes the character of a society. It's most often the little things that, in the midst of plenty, seem like small ethical potatoes. The accounting of the market value of an asset as a profit on a balance sheet, or the creation of financial products from derivatives--whether appropriate or not--is cast as acceptable when the sun shines. It's natural to think of oneself as an invulnerable master of the universe when all goes according to plan. It's easy to excuse personally beneficial lapses when the overall tide lifts. It's convenient to dismiss another's failure as incompetence when one's own star is rising.
So when do humans become humane? Even a casual read suggests that we are most ennobled when most disadvantaged. Strength triggers arrogance, which leads to belief in a just world where those who've fallen deserve their fate. They are the inept or cowardly products of a simple Darwinian equation. In contrast, weakness triggers vulnerability, which leads to a belief that anyone can fall prey to life's vicissitudes. Here sympathy, not superiority, is evoked.
The armies of the unemployed in Detroit, New York and elsewhere have a pristine empathy for their own and others' fragility. This is not a class or a religious allegiance but a psychological one. The fate of laid-off lawyers, financiers, consultants and managers is directly equivalent to that of skilled laborers that find their life's circumstances inconsolably discombobulated. Misfortune, or the prospect thereof, is life's great equalizer.
Psychology, not economics, provides a more compelling explanation for how we come to grips with tumultuous times. When times are stable and munificent, we humans erect intellectual and emotional structures that allow us to revel in the conviction that we are in control of our lives and thus not susceptible to fortune's foul winds.
But when, as inevitably happens, the hard rain falls, these structures are punctured. They no longer protect or prevent awareness of our vulnerability. It is at these moments and in these times that empathy is most heightened. The chastening reminds us that life is unpredictable and unfair, which in turn gentles our attributions of others. The result is that benevolence bests bestiality.
The reality or prospect of hard times breeds compassion and connection, not coldness and correction. When the tectonic plates of life shift underfoot they are accompanied by an equally powerful psychological shift. The recognition of our own vulnerability casts the vulnerability of others into sharp relief, which in turn triggers sympathy and a renewed appreciation of "there but by grace go I." In today's recessionary times, there's every reason to believe that munificent conduct will rule the day.
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