July 24, 2006

An eye for an eye is a subjective game.

Suggests Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, in an op-ed in today's NYT. Here's a study he describes:
The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.
So they were upping the pressure 40%? How disturbing is that? Maybe the "eye for an eye" rule already incorporated the realistic prediction that people carrying out retribution would go over the mark. And maybe they should. There are lots of people who would be only too happy to punch you in the face if they had the assurance that all you'd ever do would be to give them one equal punch. But what discord the first puncher causes! How is one equal punch back fair? There's a guy at the next table in the café where I'm writing this. If I waltzed over and slapped him in the face, I'd be shattering the whole social order. Slapping me back is hardly sufficient. The lesson is: Don't start it, because even fair-minded people will pay you back with some extra punishment that you richly deserve for breaching the peace.

Well, that's what crossed my mind. Gilbert's conclusion is much mellower:
Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.
Hey, why should I trust the bastard who hits me out of the blue?

I know Jesus said "Turn the other cheek." I remember right after 9/11, a friend say to me -- with great enthusiasm -- that a brilliant response would be to do nothing at all, to turn the other cheek. The Muslim world would be awed into profound admiration of us and everything would just topple into place.

43 comments:

Mary said...
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Korla said...

> that a brilliant response would be to do nothing at all, to turn the other cheek.

Yeah, that worked with the Cole bombing, and everything that preceded it.

Ann Althouse said...

"You've told us your sons would be ineligible for military service if there were a draft."

No, I didn't. I said you shouldn't assume someone's sons are eligible.

John said...

Mary. You seem to contradict the "turn the other cheek" mantra you espouse with almost each of your posts. And your responses are easily greater than 40% more forceful.

I think the conclusions drawn by the study make perfect sense. No one can know what another person physically feels, they can come close emotionally, but never duplicate.

garrison said...

The problem I have with any game theory “writ small” is that I don’t know how much it tells us about the same theory applied in larger groups of people. I would think that collective behavior might differ from individual behavior.

There are examples of game theory that work as advertised outside the lab, such as the reverse auction ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reverse_auction ). I just wonder what we can draw from Dr. Gilbert’s experiment other than maybe another metaphor, which seems to explain more than it does.

Mary said...
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Mary said...
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Robert Burnham said...

I question how far the conclusions of this psych lab experiment apply outside the lab. In real world situations, there's always a context: the current situation, plus perhaps a past history between the two sides, and usually a future outcome both sides are looking toward.

For good scientific reasons, contingent matters such as these are kept out of the experimental protocol. But humans operating in the real world can and must take account of them.

Natural selection has ingrained in most of us that it's safest to assume the worst when others hurt you. And if that's the case, then over-responding to aggression is often exactly the right action to end a conflict, if retreat is impractical.

Troy said...

Jimmuh Carter made the mistake of mis-reading Jesus Christ as a foreign policy advisor. Turn the other cheek is great personal ethics and required if being persecuted for the faith. It is not a response to terrorism, burglars, or someone attacking your family.

John said...

"lol. I'm just typing responses here. I've never "espoused" anything. Silly rabbit."

My bad. I forgot you choose the path of agitation, rather than solution.

Won't make that mistake again!

Troy said...

Come on John... some of the greatest problems of mankind were solved by the ponitfications of the self-righteous... slavery, wars, colonialism, the problem of how to stay indoors in the summer with refrigerated air in Washington DC, the South, etc. ....

Mary said...
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Der Hahn said...

Ann
I think you are correct that 'an eye for an eye' was intended to act as a brake on our urge to react with increased violence to an injury.


after 9/11, everything would just ..... topple into place.

Did you really intended to write that?

ignacio said...

Let's see, who was it who said, "Silly rabbit." Oh yeah, it was Uma Thurman in KILL BILL, while killing and maiming 93 people.

Which I guess adds a little bit of attitude to the phrase.

Mary said...
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Mary said...
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Henry said...

In fact, where would that region be now if anybody was learning anything practical from the past 20 years and applying it to the master strategy?

I think Israel learned that negotiating with terrorist leaders --even reformed ones -- is a bad idea.

What are they supposed to have learned?

Brian said...

Long hair and sandals notwithstanding, Jesus was no wimp. Turning the other cheek, in its Biblical context, is an act of defiance, not an act of surrender. When you were struck by someone who considered you a social inferior, you would be hit with the back of his hand. Turning the other cheek was a defiant way to force him to hit you with his open hand and thereby treat you as an equal.

Important, I think, to give some consideration to context and metaphor when using the words of Jesus Christ to make a point.

Amadeo said...

"An eye for an eye is a subjective game"

I suppose there is really nothing new about this being subjective especially as interpreted in Judaism (Torah and Talmud) which lays out its own concept of retributive justice, known as Lex Talionis.

And if I remember correctly, it includes not only meting out financial damages, but also taking measures to ensure that the wrongdoer will not be in a position to commit the same evil again.

Troy said...

I haven't seen/read any speech to fear Mary. Disdain is not fear.

And exactly how does that (your earlier quote) contradict any biblical teaching? I don't see anything in your quotation where Bush is misreading a specific scriptural passage such as Jimmuh and "the other cheek". And there wasn't a funny punchline anywhere in any of my posts or your posts either -- Trix rabbit notwithstanding.

Pogo said...

I hate research like this, which "proves" something, although exactly what is unclear.

Does it have any predictive value about actual human behavior? No, because human motives and actions are far too complex to ever be "predictable" (e/g/ '40 percent greater force').

Ann's off-the-cuff assessmnet is pretty much dead on correct, as far as anyone can guess human behavior. Did I mention I hate studies like this?

Ann Althouse said...

"Did you really intended to write that?"

Absolutely.

Mary: Do not presume to make my sons a topic here. For someone who is continually scolding others in a moralistic tone, you have very little sense of what is appropriate. In fact, why not take a break from commenting? You've posted nearly 100 comments in the last two days.

Ann Althouse said...

You know, I'm incredibly pissed off at Mary for writing private things about my family that she thinks she's gleaned from my ex-husband's overly confessional blog. Mary, you don't seem to realize that Richard has sons by his second wife, and in any event, it's outrageous to import private material from his blog over here where it is not the topic.

So, I must say, I am fed up with you. You are not permitted to comment over here anymore, even to respond to this post. I will regard any further comments by you as harassment.

For the rest of you, Mary is someone who is known to me.

Simon Kenton said...

I don't know whether you prefer commendation to be private or public, but just from the perspective of ongoing civil discussion, thanks for dropping the hammer on Mary.

charlotte said...

Mary's comments about family were intrusive, weirdly gratuitous, and no doubt inaccurate; that Ann pushed back couldn't have been more appropriate (and on this thread!)

I wonder whether Gilbert protects his own or places his "trust" in those who would hurt.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Jesus was speaking to a marginalized underclass who were constantly being taken advantage of by Roman overlords. They couldn't choose not be around the Romans, they couldn't choose not to be taken advantage of, but they could choose not to repay evil with evil and not to harden their hearts with bitterness and hatred.

And the context of Jesus' statement, as Troy points out, is not the establishment of public policy (as with Moses) but the exhortation to a new kind of interpersonal dynmanic which characterizes Jesus' kingdom.

There's a difference between forgiveness and trust. Forgiveness is a gift; trust is earned. I can forgive people who've hurt me, but I'm not obligated to let them hurt me again.

Mary said...
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Ann Althouse said...

I can't believe Mary posted again, deliberately doing the exact thing I said I regarded as harassment. I'm not here to delete your posts, Mary. I'm requiring you not to post.

You are a former student of mine, and you are a fool to embarrass yourself here like this. I expect you to stop now. I hope you realize that
I could simply reveal your full name, which would be damaging to you, considering that it will be easily found on a Google search.

Find something else to do.

Mary said...
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Ann Althouse said...

Your judgment is terribly poor if you think you are not damaging your career by behaving this way.

If you post again, I will write to Blogger that you are using your account for harassment.

Mary said...
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Finn Kristiansen said...

This was an interesting thread, and of course brings to mind the Isreal-Hezbollah situation. Hezbollah kills several soldiers, and kidnaps two, and Israel responds in massive fashion, and certainly not mere eye for an eye. Though, and perhaps in contrast to the study, their response is very calculated.

It can be argued that if someone attacks your "space" out of the blue, a disproportionate response is justified, because of the inconvenience of someone imposing their presence on you. And in some cases, totally destroying someone who attacks you can actually deter further violence later. Hezbollah probably certainly miscalculated, since they lack the power to raise the pain threshold, and Israel is giving a lesson in costs not just to Hezbollah, but to anyone who might be contemplating such adventures (Iran).

As for Jesus, and cheeks, I don't think we can just make a distinction between personal and national behavior.

If he expects it of individuals, he would certainly approve of it on a national level, in terms of restrained responses. Turning the other cheek is not simply bending over, but rather, seeking resolution that does not demand equal or disproportionate response.

There is policy behind the concept. In turning the cheek, you are trying to sway the opponent, and thus swayed, the opponent does not repeat his deeds(assuming they have a conscience, and no backers pushing them to exploit your cheeks).

Internet Ronin said...

Finn: Which cheeks?

Mary said...
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Johnny Nucleo said...

Violent conflict happens. Once it does, the goal is to end it. On the street, in the jungle, and in geopolitics, what ends violent conflict is the Chicago Way. The subjects of the study seem to have instinctively understood this.

That's what "war is hell," means, or at least one of the things it means. Hell is the Chicago Way.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Finn,

I think you are right in part, but I must also disagree in part. Yes, Jesus is advocating a new dynamic in human relationships which breaks the cycle of violence. But that comes in the middle of speaking to his disciples about a new kind of human community, one bounded by people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for example. He was not preaching to Herod or Pilate.

War is indeed hell, and a sad reality in a sin-filled world. We can debate whether Israel's response in appropriate, but I do not think Jesus was telling people not to defend themselves (not that the Israelis particularly care what Jesus had to say on the matter).

And "Turn the other cheek" is hardly the sum of biblical teaching on violence and response. The New Testament has a few things to say about the legitimate role of government in punishing evildoers and protecting the innocent so they can live quiet and peaceable lives.

Madison Guy said...

Sorry about the personal situation and the nasty harassment. You've handled it appropriately, with great restraint. (I'm afriad I would have revealed the full name many posts back.) Fortunately, hitting back forcefully in personal life does not risk the end of the world.

Unfortunately, when nations strike back against each other, things can quickly get much worse. Here's another way to view Gilbert's Op-Ed. Only read it if you’re prepared to face TEOTWAWKI in eight short steps.

Seven Machos said...

I would add here that the part of the Bible in which "an eye for an eye" is actually mentioned is basically an exposition on tort law, and I think it's clear from the surrounding context that the meaning is not really "an eye for an eye" as we understand it. At all. The meaning is that you pay with property a sum equal to the damage you did, which is, of course, basically identical to the law today.

Interesting experiment, though...

aaron said...

The assumption being that the goal of a response is only to reciprocate, to inflict an equal amount of pain.

Usually the pain isn't much a of a consideration, it's the reason, meaning, and consequences that determine an adequate response.

The goal of reciprocating is a flawed strategy itself. If you were to attempt to give a measured response causing damage no greater than inflicted by your attacker, you are guarenteed to lose by game theory. On average, your response will be less damaging than their attacks and you will not provide adequate disincentive for future attacks; eventually you will lose the game.

Because their continued attacks cause damage and loss, you must advance after an attack to secure additional resources that will act as insurance, buffering the cost of defense and losses incurred as result of the attack and future attacks.

aaron said...

The "turn the other cheek" discussion also reminds me of some more valuable perspectives:

1. Turn-the-other-cheek applies where the act is mostly symbolic and the costs are endurable and not permanent. A slap, not murder. Defiance; what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger.

2. Martyrs endured unjust legal persecution, publically, to bring attention to the innapproptiate law. They didn't attack anyone.

Mary said...
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Pogo said...

There is some useful literature on the idea that victims of crime and violence view their injury with logarithmic difference from the view of the perpetrator. Being attacked while walking in a park is shrugged off by the criminal, but life-changing for the victim.

I've taken care of such vicitms for much of my career. Their perpetrators claim over-reaction when someone gets PTSD from an assault. The sufferers seem to have no control over it, however.

I believe we're created to a greater or lesser degree for 'disproportionate' responses. If done in retaliation, this 'Chicago Way' works at stopping violence. If the disproportionate reaction is directed inwards, the effects are devastating.

Korla said...

Why does Mary keep saying "This post has been removed by a blog administrator."

She's redundantly repetitive.