The Holier Than Thou Effect

In my column for this week, available here, I discuss a phenomenon known as the "holier-than-thou effect," (which I will call the "HTTE") in which individuals systematically overestimate the odds that they will do the right thing when faced with a moral choice. By contrast, people seem far more accurate at assessing others' moral fortitude (with predictions that turn out to be on the money when applied to the predictors as well). My column takes up the question of how an appreciation for the HTTE might move our criminal justice system away from harsh retribution and toward a more compassionate and rehabilitation-oriented approach to anti-social conduct.

In this post, I want to explore a different aspect of the HTTE -- its ability to make us resistant to the results of empirical research. Ironically, in other words, the very trait on display in the HTTE studies makes it extremely difficult or impossible for us to realize that we too might be guilty of the HTTE. Assume, for example, that I read about a study that says that people generally do not stop to help a person in distress, even though the very same people generally predict that they would stop in such a situation. If the study is well-designed and can be generalized beyond the particular subjects of the experiment, then my (or your) likely reaction to it will predictably be, "Well, yes. I am not at all surprised to learn that most people do not stop to help the person in distress. I, however, would stop, because I am better than that. Unlike the others, I know what I would do under the circumstances, and I would do what's right.

Between 1960 and 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted a study at Yale University in obedience to authority. The study demonstrated that when told to do so by an authority figure, ordinarily, normal people will administer life-threatening electric shocks to strangers against whom they bear no ill will (even though the stranger is screaming in apparent excruciating pain and ultimately becomes eerily silent).

The study was thought to show that virtually any one of us could become a Nazi and engage in murderous atrocities if asked to do so by a perceived authority figure. Since that time, however, many have called into question the notion that the Holocaust was primarily a product of too much "obedience to authority." Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, for example, has argued in Hitler's Willing Executioners, that a deep-seated anti-semitism (rather than an inability to say "no" to an authority figure) provides a better account of what occurred during the Holocaust. Nazis and others happily and eagerly committed atrocities against Jews.

What does any of this have to do with the HTTE? It suggests that human beings are subject to two quite distinct phenomena that lead us to commit unspeakable harms, even as we assume from a safe distance that we would never do so. We often obey authority (and socially sanctioned rules) without question, even when it tells us to do bad things, and we behave maliciously (without being ordered to do so), when we know we will get away with it and find it otherwise tempting. Yet, at the same time, we are in a state of denial about our capacity to behave in this manner, under either set of conditions.

When confronted with the Milgram experiment, for example, a typical reaction is for a person to believe that if he were told to administer potentially lethal shocks as part of an experiment, he would refuse to do so. And when people study the Holocaust (or genocides that continue to this day), they tend to think that they would never commit such acts. Because denial is part of the HTTE equation, moreover, no empirical study should satisfy people that they (as opposed to their neighbors) could act in the manner hypothesized. The truer the HTTE is, in other words, the less inclined any individual will be to believe it captures his or her own likely behavior.

If this is true, then studying the HTTE may seem pointless. We learn that most people will overpredict their own future virtuousness, but we -- subject to this overprediction -- will exempt ourselves individually from this overprediction illusion (and thereby exhibit it). Why bother studying it, then? One answer is that it is useful to expose people to uncomfortable facts, in part because such exposure might heighten our awareness of our own behavior. If I, for example, read about this study and then pass a needy person on the street without helping her, I might actually notice myself doing this and have an "aha!" moment, during which I realize that I too have overpredicted my own virtue. And if the HTTE research leads to many such "aha!" moments across the population, we might (as individuals and as groups) ultimately stop ourselves from doing some of the terrible things that we were otherwise poised to do. Even as we resist the exhortation of the Oracle of Delphi to "Know Thyself," then, the work of social scientists informing of us of that resistance might ultimately lead us out of the dark.

Posted by Sherry F. Colb