Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Actions Louder Than Words

In a recent article for the New York Times, Adam Grant investigates the psychology of moral education and discusses various research suggesting that children are more responsive to praise aimed at the self as opposed to praise aimed at the act. He cites a research study in which researchers praised child generosity in one of two ways, either by targeting the act by saying: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” or else by targeting the self: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.”

Two weeks later when the researchers gave these same children more opportunities to give and to share, they found that the second group of children were much more generous than the children whose actions alone had been praised. When only their actions were praised, children tended to make no association between their actions and their own moral character whereas when they were praised for being generous this encouraged them to think of themselves as generous people.

Although the article makes no mention of the closely related research on motivation, it should be noted that praise without content (i.e. praise with no information about what the praise is actually for) has been found to be of limited long–term value no matter how it is targeted and it has also been shown in some cases to do long–term harm to intrinsic motivation (I have written of this previously herehere and here).

Grant also mentions the flipside of praise and the research of June Price Tangney which distinguishes between shame on the one hand (the feeling of being a bad person) and guilt on the other (the feeling of having done a bad thing). Grant writes: “Shame is a negative judgment about the core self. […] In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behaviour.”

Appropriately targeted, informative, positive judgments reinforce the development of a child's moral character, whilst disappointment – as opposed to punishing disapproval – is regarded as the best response to poor behaviour (once again protecting the child’s self-image). This seems to be the message, but Grant also points out that there appears to be an optimum period – between the ages of 5 and 10 – where this strategy has greatest influence, outwith this 5 year window the impact is negligible.

Grant also mentions a classic study by J. Philippe Rushton in which 140 children were given tokens for winning a game. They then watched a "teacher" play the game either selfishly or generously, followed by a pronouncement from the same teacher on the value of taking, giving or neither. They then had the option of donating some of their tokens to a child with none. The results were startling. In every case the children were significantly influenced by the actions of the teacher but not the teachers words. Even when the teacher preached selfishness but gave generously, 49% more than the norm gave generously also. Two months later, Rushton returned to see if any residue of these effects remained. To his surprise, the most generous children were those who had previously watched the teacher give generously whilst saying nothing.

Should we be surprised that these children were more likely to match the behaviour of the teacher when this was not accompanied by verbal exemplification of the underlying moral principles? Although we commonly say that "actions speak louder than words", it seems reasonable to suppose that actions plus speech would be even more effective. Certainly in the praise-case, mentioned earlier, there wasn't anything for the researcher to actually model in behavioural terms and therefore it seems fair to conclude that the information accompanying the praise provided the means for each praised child to generate a self-conception: to be able to describe themselves as "nice and helpful".

The two examples discussed present us with two quite different forms of learning and it might be worthwhile to distinguish between these in a little more detail. Psychology provides two terms — two types of knowledge in fact — that might be useful here: "declarative knowledge" and "procedural knowledge", or what the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, called "knowing that" and "knowing how".

When children in the first study were praised for their generosity, their actions were already demonstrative of generosity: of knowledge of the procedure of generosity. Targeted praise reinforced this knowledge with additional declarative information that seems to have disposed these children towards further acts of generosity. On the other hand, the children who learnt generosity by example were not provided with any declarative understanding of how to represent themselves, yet they behaved more generously than their verbally instructed peers. How should we interpret this?

We should be careful not to make the mistake of supposing that by emulating generous actions, children simultaneously acquire the declarative knowledge necessary to describe themselves as generous. If that were so, then the self-defining information contained in the praise-case would be of no consequence. It seems far more likely that the token-sharing children simply copied the teacher because they wished to fit-in or because they assumed that giving tokens away was the done thing. Perhaps they hadn’t yet formed any form of “self image” in this regard but were simply behaving in a mimetic mode that might later be galvanised, i.e. explicitly represented (with the help of a guide or teacher) as a character-trait as opposed to a mere unreflective form of mimicry.

This is not to say that unreflective actions are mindless reflexes, but what it does strongly imply - if not confirm - is that such actions are not driven by any form of conceptual knowledge. In other words, they are procedural capacities whereas morals, on the other hand, are abstract concepts that we attribute to our own and other peoples' actions and are therefore not an intrinsic nor necessary part of prosocial behaviour. Nonlinguistic humans and animals are not immoral, they are amoral - they simply do not have the conceptual tools necessary for moral reasoning (or reasoning of any kind). But even a piranha doesn't eat its own kin. 

One outstanding question remains: why are children more generous when generosity is exemplified in the absence of verbal reinforcement? The most obvious answer is probably the right one: they take their cues wherever they can find them, but if cues of different kinds are available they will emulate procedural forms of exemplification over declarative ones. The simpler the representation the better. In fact, verbal representation (declarative conceptualisation) would appear to distract significantly from procedural exemplification by introducing competing behavioural options.

The point is this: moral action is enabled by conceptual capacities that we acquire through language. Prosocial behaviour, on the other hand, is conceivable in the absence of language by virtue of nonverbal procedures of exemplification that must have preceded language - including during human infancy. 


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