Full text of social psychologist Dolly Chugh’s talk titled “How to let go of being a “good” person — and become a better person” at TED Talk conference. In this talk, she explains the puzzling psychology of ethical behavior — like why it’s hard to spot your biases and acknowledge mistakes — and shows how the path to becoming better starts with owning your mistakes.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Dolly Chugh – Social psychologist
So a friend of mine was riding in a taxi to the airport the other day. And on the way, she was chatting with the taxi driver, and he said to her, with total sincerity, “I can tell you are a really good person.”
And when she told me this story later, she said she couldn’t believe how good it made her feel, that it meant a lot to her.
Now that may seem like a strong reaction from my friend to the words of a total stranger, but she’s not alone.
I’m a social scientist. I study the psychology of good people, and research in my field says many of us care deeply about feeling like a good person and being seen as a good person.
Now, your definition of “good person” and your definition of “good person” and maybe the taxi driver’s definition of “good person” — we may not all have the same definition. But within whatever our definition is, that moral identity is important to many of us.
Now, if somebody challenges it, like they question us for a joke we tell, or maybe we say our workforce is homogenous, or a slippery business expense, we go into red-zone defensiveness a lot of the time. I mean, sometimes we call out all the ways in which we help people from marginalized groups, or we donate to charity, or the hours we volunteer to nonprofits.
We work to protect that good person identity. It’s important to many of us.
But what if I told you this?
What if I told you that our attachment to being good people is getting in the way of us being better people?
What if I told you that our definition of “good person” is so narrow, it’s scientifically impossible to meet? And what if I told you the path to being better people just begins with letting go of being a good person?
Now, let me tell you a little bit about the research about how the human mind works to explain.
The brain relies on shortcuts to do a lot of its work. That means a lot of the time, your mental processes are taking place outside of your awareness, like in low-battery, low-power mode in the back of your mind. That’s, in fact, the premise of bounded rationality.
Bounded rationality is the Nobel Prize-winning idea that the human mind has limited storage resources, limited processing power. And as a result, it relies on shortcuts to do a lot of its work.
So for example, some scientists estimate that in any given moment… like better, better click, right? There we go.
At any given moment, 11 million pieces of information are coming into your mind. 11 million! And only 40 of them are being processed consciously.
So 11 million, 40. I mean, has this ever happened to you? Have you ever had a really busy day at work, and you drive home, and when you get in the door, you realize you don’t even remember the drive home, like whether you had green lights or red lights. You don’t even remember. You were on autopilot.
Or have you ever opened the fridge, looked for the butter, swore there is no butter, and then realized the butter was right in front of you the whole time?
These are the kinds of “whoops” moments that make us giggle, and this is what happens in a brain that can handle 11 million pieces of information coming in with only 40 being processed consciously. That’s the bounded part of bounded rationality.
This work on bounded rationality is what’s inspired work I’ve done with my collaborators Max Bazerman and Mahzarin Banaji, on what we call bounded ethicality. So it’s the same premise as bounded rationality, that we have a human mind that is bounded in some sort of way and relying on shortcuts, and that those shortcuts can sometimes lead us astray.
With bounded rationality, perhaps it affects the cereal we buy in the grocery store, or the product we launch in the boardroom. With bounded ethicality, the human mind, the same human mind, is making decisions, and here, it’s about who to hire next, or what joke to tell or that slippery business decision.
So let me give you an example of bounded ethicality at work. Unconscious bias is one place where we see the effects of bounded ethicality. So unconscious bias refers to associations we have in our mind, the shortcuts your brain is using to organize information, very likely outside of your awareness, not necessarily lining up with your conscious beliefs.
Researchers Nosek, Banaji and Greenwald have looked at data from millions of people, and what they’ve found is, for example, most white Americans can more quickly and easily associate white people and good things than black people and good things. And most men and women can more quickly and easily associate men and science than women and science.