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A Laboratory Study of “Love Your Fellow Man As Yourself”

By Shlomo Maital

Molly J. Crockett, Yale Univ.

   A recent BBC program put me on to some lovely research done by Molly J. Crockett, at Yale University, on altruism and morality. Her work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.*   She is a neuroscientist who uses lab experiments and functional MRI (brain mapping) to study moral behavior.

     In her lab, subjects administer small electric shocks to others and to themselves, for payment. Here is the main, surprising finding:

     “In two studies we show that most people valued others’ pain more than their own pain. This was evident in a willingness to pay more to reduce others’ pain than their own and a requirement for more compensation to increase others’ pain relative to their own. …… Our results provide evidence for a circumstance in which people care more for others than themselves.”

   In our synagogue we are studying philosopher Martin Buber’s pathbreaking book I and Thou, published in 1923 in German and in 1937 in English. In it Buber examines in deep philosophical terms our intimate relationship with God and with others.   “Thou”, archaic English used often for God, fails to capture the German “Du”, which is ‘familiar’, used only for persons with whom we are closely linked, usually our age or younger, as opposed to Dir, which is formal, respectful, used for those older than us. Buber’s key point is the very personal, intimate relationship we have with God, as ‘du’.

     How is Crockett’s work related to Buber?   Apparently, she explains in her BBC interview, when we are deciding on our moral behavior (administer a small painful shock to others), we step outside ourselves, and become “Thou”. The I-Thou transforms the I, as we empathize with the person with whom we are relating, and become ‘thou’. This is proven, by fMRI visuals showing the areas of the lateral pre-frontal cortex, which in general ‘imagine’ situations and outcomes.  

     So Buber’s I-Thou is indeed the foundation of morality, except that in Crockett’s work, a key part of morality is the ability to actually BECOME our neighbor, the person with whom we are interacting. So there IS a scientific foundation to the Jewish precept of “Love they neighbor as thyself”.   This occurs, when we actually become our neighbor, stepping outside of our own selves. It is highly significant that for most people, they prefer to administer an electric shock to themselves rather than to someone else. I know I certainly would.

   By the way, Crockett’s lab experiments are done under strict ethical standards. The electric shocks are slight, short and, as the BBC interviewer mentioned, perhaps no more than briefly putting your hands under hot water.  

   She has a brilliant 11 minute TED talking that is worth watching.

*Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making”. Molly J. Crockett, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Jenifer Z. Siegel, Peter Dayan, and Raymond J. Dolan PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences   December 2, 2014 111 (48) 17320-17325; first published November 17, 2014

 

Find Meaning – Even Kids Seek It

By Shlomo Maital

meaning

Writing in the New York Times’ Sunday magazine (Oct. 19 issue), KONIKA BANERJEE (Yale grad student in psychology) and   PAUL BLOOM (Yale psychology professor) make a powerful, simple point.  It is a basic fundamental human drive, to seek meaning – to find meaning in the events that happen to us, right from early childhood.

   In research to be published in the leading journal Child Development, the scholars found that: “even young children show a bias to believe that life events happen for a reason — to “send a sign” or “to teach a lesson.” This belief exists regardless of how much exposure the children have had to religion at home, and even if they’ve had none at all.”     Other studies confirm that our search for meaning is independent of religious belief.   Atheists, too, need to find meaning.”

   The researchers caution us that this desperate search for meaning – the belief that there is order and purpose in the world, that it is not ‘aleatoric’ (random) – can lead us into error:

   “But it can lead us into error when we overextend it, causing us to infer psychological states even when none exist. This fosters the illusion that the world itself is full of purpose and design.”

   Sometimes, life is indeed random. Take the stock market, for instance. A lot of its movements are random. But ‘experts’ always find an explanation, mostly wrong.

   In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl showed how finding meaning in the most desperate context (in his case, a concentration camp) can keep us alive.   I often quote Apple guru and VC Guy Kawasaki, who counsels entrepreneurs to “Make meaning, not money”.   In other words: Create value in the world, and the money will probably follow.

   People who have serious illnesses, for instance, often seek (and find) meaning in their suffering. They emerge from the illness resilient, strong and hopeful.   Meaning creates hope. And hope creates strength, often beyond what we could previously imagine.

   So, continue to seek meaning. Find meaning in your life, in your relationships, in your startup. And frankly, it doesn’t matter that much if you’re right or wrong about your theory.   And recall the two scholars’ last line — finding meaning does not mean you become passive. The opposite – we MAKE meaning by our actions:

“ … the events of human life unfold in a fair and just manner only when individuals and society work hard to make this happen.” 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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