I have described before that I think a good philosophy to live by is “Try not to be a jerk”. While it is more limited in scope and not as elegant or high-minded as some of the more well known ones like treating others as you would like them to treat you, it has the advantage that jerk behavior is easily recognizable in pretty much every situation and thus can be more easily avoidable if one wants to.
So naturally my attention was caught by this article that had the title How to Raise Kids Who Don’t Grow Up to Be Jerks (or Worse). It consists of an interview with Melinda Wenner Moyer, the author of a book that discusses how to raise children to not be jerks. (The book’s title is actually How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes which is pretty much the same thing.)
Moyer says that the key is helping children develop a theory of mind.
Moyer probes the research on how to encourage kids to be generous, honest, helpful and kind. She reviews studies on how to instill egalitarian beliefs and make sure kids know how to stand up against racism and sexism
One of the core questions I had was, “How do I raise my kids to be generous and kind?” A lot of what we hear is about the importance of teaching giving and generosity. But the research I kept coming across stemmed from how we talk about feelings. That’s surprising—why would that have anything to do with how generous children would become? It became clear that helping our kids understand their feelings gives them the capacity to understand others’ feelings and helps them make decisions to help their friends and be more generous toward them. This is part of something called theory of mind—how to understand others’ feelings. Research suggests that the more parents talk about their feelings and other peoples’, the more kids are likely to be generous and helpful.
We have this idea that there is a type of kid that is a bully. But it’s not just a bad seed who becomes a bully. Anybody can bully. We need to have regular conversations with our kids about this. Some of the research has found that kids who engage in bullying behaviors often don’t realize their behavior is hurtful. It comes back to the idea of talking about feelings. Sometimes they aren’t intentionally trying to hurt other people—they don’t understand the impact of what they’re doing.
Sociopaths clearly act without regard to the feelings of others. The article does not discuss whether this is because they do not have a theory of mind and thus cannot comprehend how others might feel about their actions or whether it is that they can comprehend but just don’t care. The book likely goes into that.
Reginald Selkirk says
Understanding what another person wants is a big help in being successful in a variety of human activities -- diplomacy, business, sports, etc. This underscores the importance of realizing that other people have minds of their own, and may not want what you want (i.e. “developing a theory of mind.”)
Matt G says
Catch-22 -- the parents who should do this are the ones who don’t want to. And the cycle continues.
Many will say that their kid being a bully makes it less likely that THEY will be bullied.
Marcus Ranum says
I was raised by a consequentialist. It was always “how do you think you would feel if someone did that to you?” I think that stuck and it was a reasonably effective way of installing an idea that I needed to model other people’s experiences. From that, empathy and negotiation.
There is some interesting crimonology regarding murderers, e.g. Richard Rhodes’ Why They Kill which argues that childhood exposure to violence is very powerfully learned.
John Morales says
Dunno about that. Seems to me some are quite adept at manipulating others’ feelings, which can only be done using theory of mind.
I’ve been surprised many times by people that ought to understand the concept of theory of mind, people who even claim to understand it, who yet demonstrate that it does not factor into their thinking at all.
John Morales says
Holms, what’s the difference between it not factoring at all and merely losing out on a cost-benefit basis on some action?
I quote from the quotation in the OP:
“Some of the research has found that kids who engage in bullying behaviors often don’t realize their behavior is hurtful.”
If they often don’t, then that means that less often they do.
(But they do it anyway)
What part of my post made you think I was talking about those kids?
“…people that ought to understand the concept of theory of mind, people who even claim to understand it…”
John Morales says
Holms, what made you imagine I thought you were talking about those kids?
What I wrote applies every bit as much to adults as to children.
(“Oh, that will upset them, but I will profit and suffer no downside. So I’ll do it.”)
Point being, that because you only see the action rather than the impulses (or even ruminations) that go into it, doesn’t mean it was not considered.
To go back to the post topic, what constitutes being a jerk is subjective.
To sum up, and contrary to the intimation of the post, I personally think being able to model others’ thinking is helpful rather than problematic for bad actors. It’s just another conceptual tool.
(One can best hurt those one knows best)
Your direct reference to them, John.
John Morales says
Well, I was not excluding them.
So… Again: “Holms, what’s the difference between it not factoring at all and merely losing out on a cost-benefit basis on some action?”
Parents almost never admit that their kids behave like jerks. As you demonstrated yourself a few times (but certainly no more often than the average human being) this
“jerk behavior is easily recognizable in pretty much every situation”
is simply a false assumption.
It also is unscientific; according to psychological research people consistently think too high of themselves regarding character and behaviour. The exceptions are those who suffer from depressions.
People are very good at deluding themselves.
That applies to me.
And to you.
steve oberski says
One hypothesis I’ve come across for the development of empathy in humans is not that it allows us treat others as we would be treated but that it allows us to model and predict the feelings of others for the purpose of manipulating and controlling them.
John @4, no, sociopaths are by definition incapable of empathy or caring about the feelings of others. They often have great difficulty understanding that other people do have feelings. What they learn to manipulate, by observation, is people’s behavior, not their feelings. Successful sociopaths often also learn by observations what other people think is appropriate behavior and mimic it, though usually not very well.
Theory of mind is *everything*. And, as Marcus says @3, the constant drumbeat of parents of toddlers is “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” Repeating that about 15,000 times during the first few years of a kid’s life pays off all the rest of your life, so you don’t have to deal with a jerk of a teenager, not to mention adult.
You weren’t just ‘not excluding’ those “kids who engage in bullying”, you were specifically talking about them. And I wasn’t.
It’s a fascinating subject, and one where I would like to learn more about the degree to which a parent can teach a child these things, versus the degree to which a child adapts to the world around them. Absent any data demonstrating otherwise, I tend to think human behavior is continually shaped by our surroundings, both environmental and social. Societies that reward sociopathic behavior and (perhaps more importantly) severely punish altruistic behavior would seem to generate sociopaths. Total institutions have learned to turn this to their advantage; i.e. how modern militaries teach soldiers to follow orders and kill other human beings.
It doesn’t seem terribly difficult to be altruistic when the stakes are low. I am more impressed by people who make the moral choice when it means almost certain financial or social ruin, or even death. Conversely, I empathize with the cowards in such a situation who choose self-preservation even if they have to do despicable acts.
I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to teach children not to be jerks, but I wonder if parents have their priorities straight when they’re raising upstanding moral agents while simultaneously destroying the Earth’s life-support systems, making sure those children grow up in a harsher world where they will be forced to make more immediate and more difficult moral decisions than we currently face.
John Morales says
I think the concept of theory of mind (ascribing mental states to others) is being conflated with empathy (placing oneself in another’s mindset).
Holms, you believe whatever you want to believe; I’ve already told you, I was being general. I used that example because I was quoting from the OP.
(It’s informative how you keep evading my original question, BTW)
garnetstar, fine, if “sociopaths are by definition incapable of empathy or caring about the feelings of others”, then repeating that [“How would you feel if someone did that to you?”] about 15,000 times during the first few years of a kid’s life is not gonna make them either emphatic or caring if they’re sociopathic, is it? And even if they’re not, there’s such a thing as psychological reactance and plain obstinacy. People are both complicated and very, very varied.
What I’m driving at is that these nostrums may be somewhat useful (at least with malleable children), but not sure-fire solutions. People are just complicated.
John Morales says
[emphatic → empathetic]
John @4: I think you’re right. If you can understand how someone feels, it should be easier to manipulate their behavior by using your knowledge of their feelings. However, understanding, in this case, is not the same as empathy. Here’s a philosophical question for anyone: does being amoral make you a sociopath, or does being a sociopath make you amoral? Or both; or neither? And who’s to say what is moral? Was Jesus right, or Machiavelli? Which is a better framework for an individual to live by, do unto others or do what is personally advantageous? Perhaps your choice depends on your odds of success. Anyway, all this thinking is giving me a headache.
John @16, few children between the ages of 2 and 4 are already sociopaths. Becoming one is linked with severe childhood abuse (or abandonment), whether physical, mental, sexual, or whatever. So, instead of abuse, parents can impress theory of mind/empathy (I don’t see the distinction, as they are interlocking) on their children. It really is preferable to impressing sociopathy on them.
And yes, “people” are complicated, but these are toddlers. Certainly almost none of them are resistant to their parents’ (or whatever their environment is) example. That’s all their brains are then, sponges quickly soaking up and learning how to act, how to think, how to feel, etc. You must get them young. (I recall a report of some physician saying that two-year-olds were nothing but a brain-stem prepartion. That’s a little extreme! But not too wrong.) Like with learning languages: toddlers’ brains are biologically set up to do that, while adults’ brains are more fixed and they learn a new language or a new way of being in the world, more slowly.
I read an FBI profiler saying that he’d never studied even one sociopath who had had what could be called a “normal” childhood. One’s personality is very highly inborn, but behavior and responses to the world are very much learned and directed at those early ages.
John, I was talking about one specific group (people that ought to understand the concept of theory of mind, people who even claim to understand it) and you responded by raising a group that was not that group (kids who engage in bullying behaviors) and so was not relevant.
Your question was not evaded, it was ignored. An evasion would be an attempt to answer in a way that appeared to address the question without actually doing so. You may imagine whatever reasons you wish as to why I ignored it.
John Morales says