How to be “goodish”, according to a social scientist – Harvard Gazette
It suggests something about the human desire to be good that at a recent online conference on the subject hosted by Harvard Law School’s Negotiation Program, viewers from around the world tuned in. In the Zoom chat area, members of the public came from Massachusetts and other states as well as distant countries such as Brazil, India, Ecuador, Spain, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Russia.
It also suggests something that nearly 5 million people watched the 2018 Ted Talk on the subject by Dolly Chugh, Friday’s featured speaker and author of “The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.”
What all of this indicates is that people all over the world are looking for guidance on how to lead a virtuous life. But for Chugh, a social scientist who studies the psychology of good people, the key to being a better person is to stop trying too hard and instead aim to be “good.”
Chugh, who earned his MBA in 1994 and his Ph.D. in 2006 in Organizational Behavior/Social Psychology at Harvard, made his point during the discussion with Max Bazerman, his former advisor, member of the Executive Committee of the Negotiation Program and Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration.
Bazerman’s work with Chugh involved the concept of bounded ethics (ethical blind spots influenced by things, like conflicts of interest), ideas that would come to inform his book. During the lunchtime conversation, Bazerman asked her to explain some of the main obstacles to good health and describe ways to work around them.
According to Chugh, being virtuous is such an impossible task because it’s based on how many of us define a “good person” in narrow terms – someone who never makes mistakes and “shows no evidence of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, etc.”
“If that’s our definition of a good person,” she says, “we won’t make it. The evidence is clear that while we may explicitly measure up to this, implicitly we will not. Chugh used herself as a case study, noting how she was called by a student for a reading she had long assigned that was sexist and how during Zoom classes she “sometimes confused two black students for one. other who really didn’t look like anything. I had a mental heuristic that I grouped people by race and therefore made mistakes,” she said. “That’s not the person I should be. I consider myself a good person.
Her impulse to stand up for her “good person identity” when such biases or unconscious errors are pointed out, she added, highlights another obstacle at the “heart of good people psychology.” They want so much both to see themselves as exemplary and to be seen that way by others that they become defensive when challenged.
But there is a better way forward, said Chugh, who is also a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She pointed to the work of American psychologist Carol Dweck on the concept of the “fixed mindset,” or what Chugh called a “fragile, good identity; either I am or I am not” a good person. Such an approach, Chugh said, “means there’s no room for growth or feedback.” Instead, she champions Dweck’s “growth mindset,” which encompasses the notion of using mistakes and feedback to continually improve.
“I call it being good,” Chugh said, “and in a good frame of mind…when we make mistakes, rather than focusing on defending ourselves against that just-broken good person identity, we let’s say more like, ‘OK, there’s a moment for me to integrate this and do better next time, be good as a work in progress.’”
Chugh also discussed the concepts of believers and builders. Believers trust the data and science around a topic like inequality and how systemic racism has led to “massive disparities on every meaningful life outcome for African Americans.” Builders “don’t just believe these things, but build the tools, communities, teams, processes, courage, families and communities to take these beliefs and make [positive change] a reality.”
But, she stressed, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. “We want to think of being a believer,” she explained, “as something that always works in a positive way to become a builder.”
Chugh’s concept of kindness also applies to the negotiating table. Those who adopt a fixed mindset are often unable to welcome other perspectives, which is essential to conflict management, she said, because their desire to defend their own identity as a virtuous person overwhelms them. In contrast, those who take a fairly good approach are better able to “hear more deeply the interests of others”, while integrating their own interests.
Chugh was asked how she avoids putting herself down too hard when she doesn’t live up to high standards of kindness, and she said the word “again” was helpful.
Remembering “I haven’t quite figured it out yet, or I haven’t had the courage to do it yet, or I haven’t learned these issues yet,” is so effective, Chugh said, because “it means that we can still get there.
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