Communion Of Dreams


The fox which wasn’t there.

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox.

* * * * * * *

A friend reacted to something I had posted elsewhere, which involved one of the instances cited in this recent blog post:

I have worked with the TSA screeners in [town]. I have worked with the management team that leads them. I know them personally, and I can tell you this is patently false, disjointed, prejudiced, half-assed reporting of the situation.

* * * * * * *

There was a fascinating long-form segment on NPR’s All Things Considered last night, looking into the “Psychology of Fraud.” The entire thing is worth reading/listening to when you get a chance, but basically it was the case study of how one otherwise ethical man wound up engaging in a series of financial frauds – and how he drew in multiple different people to help him do so.

Like I said, the whole thing is worth your time, but the thing which got me thinking was this bit:

Chapter 5: We Lie Because We Care

Typically when we hear about large frauds, we assume the perpetrators were driven by financial incentives. But psychologists and economists say financial incentives don’t fully explain it. They’re interested in another possible explanation: Human beings commit fraud because human beings like each other.

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.

Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, points to the case of emissions testers. Emissions testers are supposed to test whether or not your car is too polluting to stay on the road. If it is, they’re supposed to fail you. But in many cases, emissions testers lie.

And what’s critical in this case is that we help those we identify with. Those emissions testers? They’re much more prone to help someone who is driving an older, inexpensive model car. Because those emissions testers don’t make a whole lot of money themselves, and have cars like that. Someone comes in with a high-end car, they’re less likely to identify with the owner and cut them some slack with the emissions tests.

* * * * * * *

A (different) friend asked me this morning whether I still spend much time reading up on game theory. It was something new to him when he saw it in Communion of Dreams, and my recent posts about it had again piqued his interest.

I replied that I don’t really follow the current scholarship on the topic specifically, but that I saw it in terms of a larger psychological dynamic. I then recommended that he should read Carl Sagan’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why? Because it would provide an insight into how humans are very similar to other primates in how we exist in hierarchical groups, and how we act because of our identity to a group – how that we look to our authority figures for cues on how to behave. He’s currently serving in Afghanistan, and I told him that it would forever change how he would see the military as well as those local tribes he’s dealing with.

* * * * * * *

A passage from Wikipedia:

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.[4]

* * * * * * *

I was doing a little maintenance weeding on my asparagus bed this morning. It was the perfect time for it – cool and grey, two days after long soaking rains. The weeds were coming up root and all.

A couple doors down I could hear sounds of construction work. Seems like they’re always doing something to that house. My small grey cat weaved between the stalks of asparagus, wanting my attention. My dog sat in the grass nearby, paying attention to the construction sounds.

Neither the cat nor the dog saw the lovely red fox. It cut across the back of our large yard, disappeared into some heavy brush in the adjacent empty lot.

“Alwyn,” I said, and pointed towards the back of the lot. My dog dutifully jumped up, trotted around the raised bed, and started sniffing the ground. Quickly he caught the scent of the fox, and rushed off to the edge of the yard where it had disappeared.

But he stopped there. He’s well trained, well behaved.

I petted the cat, then headed back towards the house.

My dog followed.

Jim Downey

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6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Foxes can walk into a barnyard full of poultry and other animals, grab one chicken and leave w/o any of the others seeming to notice.

Comment by smuhlberger

I honestly didn’t know that – thanks!

Comment by James Downey

I’ve been sitting here with the comments screen open for the past ten minutes, geeking out about this post as a piece of writing. Thank you for the song.

Comment by tanteliz

My pleasure – glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for the comment.

Comment by James Downey

The observation that

We like to help each other, especially people we identify with. And when we are helping people, we really don’t see what we are doing as unethical.

reminds me of a recent report about arrests in a “gifting table” scheme which recruited women by saying that they were helping each other, but in reality was a pyramid scheme. I’ve heard of variations of this, where people (usually women) are convinced to pay into a pot that makes “loans” or “gifts” to others in the group. However, only a fraction of the people actually receive any money. The recruits believe that what they are doing is helping other women meet certain needs: To settle old debt, or start a business.

They don’t ask whether the law allows the activity. In the recent case, one woman claimed to have asked one of the other women in her pyramid, allegedly a lawyer and law professor, whether the activity was legal. Of course, if the lawyer is not familiar with the area, she may not have given accurate advice, and herself didn’t “see what [they] are doing as unethical.”

Comment by ML

Ah, very good example, ML. Yeah, this is another way which our own best instincts are sometimes used against us.

Comment by James Downey




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