Some of my best friends are pawns

Thursday, November 19, 2009

By Wray Herbert

There are certain rules of conduct on which most ethical people would agree. It’s not nice to date the boss’s daughter just to get ahead in the company. Or marry her son. And no parent would approve of a child befriending another child just because he happens to own an Xbox 360 Elite. That would be like an adult warming up to a colleague simply because he happens to have season tickets for the New Orleans Saints.

All of these ethical lapses fall under the general category of using people, which we’re taught early on not to do. People are not instruments or tools to be wielded for our own purposes, pawns to help us achieve our personal goals.

Yet we do use people anyway, often in more subtle ways than these. Why is that? Why do these moral strictures fail much of the time? New and forgiving research suggests that the urge to use people may be deeply embedded in human nature. Indeed, seeing others as useful or not may be as fundamental as perceiving gender or race in navigating out social world.

University of Waterloo psychologist Grainne Fitzsimons is interested in the interplay of personal goals and stereotypes. We are all motivated by goals, from big ones like career success to more modest ones, like losing ten pounds—or simply getting to the train on time. In fact, we spend much of daily lives in pursuit of one goal or another. We also categorize people. We all do, whether we like it or not, simply because we need to find order in the world’s complexity. So we pigeonhole others as blue-collar or professional, conservative or liberal, Black or white or Asian, man or woman, young or old.

Given that personal goals and stereotyping are both so basic to our psychology, Fitzsimons reasoned, is it possible that our goals actually influence how we pigeonhole people? Or put another way, why would we not categorize others as instruments or tools if we see them as helping us get what we want in life? Working with psychologist James Shah of Duke, she designed an experiment to explore this possibility.

Here’s the gist of the study. They had a group of volunteers focus on a goal—say, staying fit and healthy. Then they had them pick three people who they felt could help them meet their goal; let’s call them Ian, Susan and Joe. They also listed three people who they did not perceive as helpful or useful in staying fit—not a hindrance but not instrumental either. We’ll call them Nancy, Ben and Lori.

The names are important because, later on, the volunteers read a series of sentences with these names embedded in them: “The cashier gave Ian his change.” “Ben was tired of arguing” And so forth. There was a pretense for this reading, but then the psychologists surprised the volunteers with a memory test, in which they had to supply the right names: “The cashier gave ____ his change.”

The researchers expected mistakes. Indeed, it was really the mistakes they were studying. They wanted to see if they were more likely to mix up people who they had categorized as useful with other people they saw as useful (confusing Ian with Susan, for example), as opposed to confusing useful people with non-useful people (Joe and Nancy, for instance). If they did the former—confusing instrumental people only with each other—that would suggest that were grouping anyone who served their purposes as alike. It would suggest that we have a mental category for “people-who-get-me-what-I-want.”

And that’s precisely what they found. As reported on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science, the controls—those who were not focused on the fitness goal—made random errors, confusing Ben with Ian with Nancy with Susie. But those who were intent on their personal health-and-fitness goal were much more likely to perceive and remember people categorically, according to their utility, their value in helping reach the goal. Not to put too fine a point on it: All pawns look alike.

This is humbling, but it does not mean we’re slave to our automatic stereotyping. Our neurons may be categorizing the boss’s daughter as a useful tool for achieving our career goals, but whether or not to be a cad remains a choice. Our ethical sensibilities can still trump that impulse to use people as pawns, but it helps to be mindful of our baser nature.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “Full Frontal Psychology” at True/Slant. Selections from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:39 PM


At 10:30 AM , Blogger Dredd said...

That analysis may apply to nations as well?

At 3:15 PM , Blogger scressley said...

I can relate to this. Some of my best friends are pawns, but then again so am I. I have a car and they love getting rides, but they have the connections and social-gene, so that's why I hang out with them.
But don't you think this 'using' people thing could be related to the idea that back in the day when humans were still hunter gatherers they surrounded themselves with the people they thought would help them achieve their one ultimate goal: survival? Relating that to the modern day, we all try to find ways to achieve our personal goals. Whether it be getting food, getting from point A to point B or being percieved as popular. I think every single person is guilty of 'using' somebody in their lifetime. Why? Becuase it is necessary.