Moral overconfidence, health care spending and us: Sometimes, the professors really come through!
Consider Professor Krugman’s latest column. Then, consider an important essay in yesterday’s Washington Post.
Krugman has been coming through for years, although to little avail. This morning, he delivers an interesting presentation concerning the benefits of life in little small Denmark.
Krugman’s column is very much worth reading. Sadly, it made us think of his series of columns in 2006 concerning the giant costs of American health care.
In the spring of that year, Krugman wrote a series of columns about an astonishing fact. Here in the U.S., we spend two to three times as much on health care, per person, as all other comparable nations.
Tremendous amounts of money disappear in that bloated spending. Liberal and conservative citizens get looted in the process, red and blue together.
People in the conservative world should be told about these remarkable facts. But almost a decade has passed, and we know of no attempt at liberal outreach to red-state voters on this important matter.
By the way:
“Outreach to red-state voters?” What in the world is that?
To us, that lack of outreach represents a massive liberal/progressive failure—an act of massive political impotence. This brings us to the second professor who really came through—the inimitable Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School.
Nohria’s essay appeared in yesterday’s Outlook section. Cuing off Professor Milgram’s famous electric shock experiments, Nohria explores an important pair of concepts—“moral overconfidence” and “moral humility.”
Milgram’s subjects kept delivering electric shocks to other subjects, even when they believed they were administering dangerous amounts of pain. In fact, no one was actually on the receiving end of the electric shocks, but Milgram’s subjects didn’t know that—and they kept administering shocks in response to Milgram’s demands, even after their fictitious recipients seemed to have lapsed into unconsciousness.
Would you be willing to do the right thing in some similar situation? In this passage, Nohria introduces his basic concepts:
NOHRIA (10/18/15): When I ask students whether, as participants, they would have had the courage to stop administering shocks, at least two thirds raise their hands, even though only one third of Milgram’s subjects refused. I’ve come to refer to this gap between how people believe they would behave and how they actually behave as “moral overconfidence.” In the lab, in the classroom and beyond, we tend to be less virtuous than we think we are. And a little moral humility could benefit us all.Only one-third of Milgram’s subjects refused to deliver the shocks. But according to Nohria, two-thirds of his students say they would refuse.
Nohria says this “moral overconfidence” can be seen “in politics, in business, in sports—really, in all aspects of life.” We “tend to believe we are less likely than the typical person to exhibit negative qualities.”
This type of moral overconfidence “can lead us astray,” Nohria writes. “We may ignore or explain away evidence that runs counter to our established view of ourselves, maintaining faith in our virtue even as our actions indicate otherwise.”
For the most part, Nohria is talking about the way individuals can get led astray in various walks of life. But as we read the following passage, we thought about the way tribal groups can be led astray—even a tribal group as morally pure as our own liberal/progressive tribe:
NOHRIA: We would see fewer headlines about scandal and malfeasance, and we could get our actions to better match our expectations, if we tempered our moral overconfidence with some moral humility. When we recognize that the vast majority of us overestimate our ability to do the right thing, we can take constructive steps to limit our fallibility and reduce the odds of bad behavior.Nohria is still discussing the way individuals behave. But in that passage, we think he’s giving good advice to the world’s various tribes.
One way to instill moral humility is to reflect on cases of moral transgression. We should be cautious about labeling people as evil, sadistic or predatory. Of course, bad people who deliberately do bad things are out there. But we should be attuned to how situational factors affect generally good people who want to do the right thing.
Might we state the obvious? We liberals tend to love the practice of “labeling people as evil, sadistic or predatory.” We’re strongly inclined to label tens of millions of people as The Others.
In this way, we’re like other groups all over the world. But our moral overconfidence makes it hard for us to see that we behave this way.
We liberals! All too often, we love the practice of “labeling people as evil, sadistic or predatory.” This instinctive trashing of The Others helps explain our lazy, self-defeating lack of political outreach.
In our main report this week, we’ll be discussing our recent journalistic gong-show concerning Demon Alabama. We’ll explain why we think our behavior, which is tribally pleasing, constitutes a very bad political move.
Our system is built on checks and balances; we keep insuring that we’ll be checked. Do we mainly want to loathe The Others? Or do we want to try to win?
This question rarely occurs to our tribe. Nine years later, those columns by Krugman continue to pile up dust.
“[We]’re not as virtuous as [we] think.” That’s Professor Nohria, not us!