Can I train myself to make more moral snap decisions?
July 13, 2016 4:01 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I make more moral decisions when I have time to think than when I have to decide immediately, and I'd like to achieve parity.

I was leaving a parking lot earlier, and an attendant asked if I had jumper cables. My instinct not to be inconvenienced took over, and I lied no. This was an attended parking facility in daylight in a busy commercial area, so it wasn't a matter of life or death, but I still felt a tinge of guilt as I left and think that I would have gone the other way if life were like Knights of the Old Republic and I had unlimited time to decide.

Can I train myself to load my morality subroutine more quickly? I know that using the term morality without context or definition is sloppy, but I'm not sure this question requires that much care.
posted by ionnin to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like the problem isn't with morality or quick decision making. You were able to decide immediately -- you decided not to be inconvenienced. Your "moral subroutine" loaded and immediately said "I value my time more than I value helping this person." That was your quick "moral" decision.

I feel like your question actually may be asking how you can train your "moral subroutine" to default to the opposite decision than the one it made. Does that sound right to you?

If so.. then I suggest volunteer work. Get involved with something bigger than yourself, where your only goal is to help others. It can pretty quickly change your worldview and help you default to more selfless behavior.
posted by erst at 4:07 PM on July 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

I agree with erst. Also, start doing what you consider to be the moral thing in these situations, even if it means turning around ten seconds after saying no and saying, "You know what, yes, I do have time to hear more about global warming" (or whatever). Getting in the habit of doing the thing, even if it's not your first instinct, will make you more likely to do it instinctually.
posted by telegraph at 4:16 PM on July 13, 2016 [9 favorites]

If you just feel need a little extra time, can you repeat the question, like you're making sure you heard correctly or are thinking it through? That might break the sub routine enough for you to override it.

Alternatively,next time you feel that twinge of guilt, turn back. You can say "I just remembered, my dad just gave me his old set. Let's get going!" or whatever. If you walk it back often enough, you might develop a new habit.
posted by ghost phoneme at 4:19 PM on July 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

I am not sure you valued time over helping. Another alternative was to just give the jumper cables and leave. Then it was a $15 decision versus time or versus helping someone. Not sure how often you are in that area, but you could have said, "Got no time, but I could lend you these cables. I'll be back within the next week to grab them." or "Here, take my cables. When you finish, pay it forward and give them to the next person that needs them."

What I don't understand is what changes your decision with time. Guilt? Would you have felt better if you had said, "Yes, I have cables but no time. Sorry"? Are you regretting the lying about the cables or the unwillingness to help?

I am not sure your quick response was wrong morally, but assuming it was, are you asking how you can always put someone else's priorities over yours?

I think the best route here is not to try to change your decision making tree, but come up with methods to inject enough time to create the perspective you seek. ghost phoneme has some good suggestions. I would look for other tricks like that.
posted by AugustWest at 4:23 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Truly moral (ethical) decisions that are actually important can take time to consider. I try not to rush them or I'm not reflecting upon the various competing positions adequately.

Sometimes there's a case to be made for not being inconvenienced. But the quandary here is telling the truth or white lying. I quite like white lies because it saves hurt and people personalising reasons for refusal.

If your reason for a decision is being an arsehole, that's different. But always take time to reflect carefully on ethical decisions if you can. And the crux of this decision was in disclosure of truth or not. Not in assistance or not. If it inconvenienced you, that's a reasonable reason not to stop and help. Unless the person was in danger or had no other choices. But keeping healthy boundaries means you'll have the energy and resources to assist people in greater need when called upon.

I'd be spending time working on my philosophy about situations where I need to act before they occur. And have some scripts ready that I'm comfortable using. The way you might with salespeople knocking on your door or phone calls selling things or homeless people in your suburb. Have your ideology sorted first. Then act according to that.
posted by taff at 4:25 PM on July 13, 2016

fwiw, i don't understand erst (i really don't see the distinction being made). anyway, it sounds to me like maybe you need some trick (or a toolbox of tricks) that "buy time" so that you can think things out better. like maybe answering a question with "why?" rather than giving an answer immediately. or just being a bit more laid back in general ("just"...)
posted by andrewcooke at 4:42 PM on July 13, 2016

A common piece of advice is: "Imagine a person who would make the kinds of decisions you admire, and then act like you are that person." I think if you are looking for opportunities to do the things people would all do in an ideal world, you will find them occasionally.

Dissecting occasions where you didn't act as you might have hoped is less valuable in my opinion. It's always going to happen.
posted by BibiRose at 5:02 PM on July 13, 2016

I think erst is saying that prioritizing your time over someone else's needs is in itself a moral decision. So ionnin is already making quick moral decisions, just not perhaps the ones that ionnin wants to make with the benefit of hindsight.

I agree with everyone saying that you can train yourself but can only do so by actually making moral decisions. First work on making moral decisions and then you can work on making them quickly. Analyzing situations where you fall short can also be useful if you can use it to make mental scripts for what to do next time. You'll still have to actually follow the script but at least you'll have one.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:32 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are saying you would like to be more generous and helpful, which is kind of a different thing from morality per se.

Studies show that having the time to spare makes people more willing to take the time to help. There are also various studies about personality traits and how that interacts with various things. This can differ, depending on the specific issue and specific person, like some people spend more money on food if the grocery shop right after eating but others spend less money in that situation.

But, generally speaking, people who are well rested, whose own needs are adequately met and who are not currently pressed for time tend to be more giving. You can try to work on having a less time stressed schedule and taking good care of your own needs and see if that has you erring on the side of saying "Yes" more often.
posted by Michele in California at 6:02 PM on July 13, 2016

I was leaving a parking lot earlier, and an attendant asked if I had jumper cables. My instinct not to be inconvenienced took over, and I lied no. This was an attended parking facility in daylight in a busy commercial area, so it wasn't a matter of life or death, but I still felt a tinge of guilt as I left and think that I would have gone the other way if life were like Knights of the Old Republic and I had unlimited time to decide.

So I'd argue that if you did anything immoral, it was lying. And that you can avoid that in a similar situation next time by simply saying, "I can't help you, good luck!" Or doing what others have suggested, which is repeating the question or asking the person to repeat the question so you have more time to decide what you truly want to do.

I think erst is saying that prioritizing your time over someone else's needs is in itself a moral decision.

I'm not convinced that prioritising your time over someone else's needs is in itself a moral decision--unless you are the only person on the entire planet who can meet those needs. Which is almost never the case. I mention it because I have the opposite problem. I volunteer to help strangers with problems they can solve on their own or solve with the help of other people, and I often do it in a way that means I can't meet my own needs. Crazy, right? So this Internet stranger says the OP may want to consider why he feels guilty and if that's actually necessary given that he was at an attended parking facility in daylight in a busy commercial area. Moreover, if an attendant was asking for help presumably the attendant's boss may be able to help.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:58 PM on July 13, 2016

I've been thinking about similar things recently, especially after taking an implicit association test that pointed to some major unconscious bias. My reflexive thoughts and actions are not always the ones I think are best, given time to think them through.

Often, I find myself reviewing all the ways I disliked my actions in a particular situation. When I catch myself doing this, I think instead about what a good course of action might look like, and then try to let it rest.

Not sure if this would help you, but because I'm concerned with implicit bias I also try to seek out media that counteracts the biases that concern me.

Changing unconscious/automatic behavior takes time and effort, but awareness itself is a really important first step.
posted by sibilatorix at 7:20 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know exactly what you are talking about and the trick is to think out as many likely situations as possible and have a pre-decided right response already decided before it happens. This only works for certain predictable scenarios but for example, for me, I have an instant reflex to say No to anything asked of me by strangers on the street and/or to ignore them like I didn't hear them. This is not a situation where there is ever going to be time to think it out; for women especially you have to have a pre-set ignore response for when your instincts tell you the asker/yeller is dangerous or a dick, but that's not why I ignore everybody else too -- I do it because it's a reflex and that's all.

So in order to not do this, I have to tell myself, in so many words, that the next time someone nonthreatening and non-abusive asks me for money, I am going to give them the dollar that I have in my pocket. Then, when it happens, I don't need time to make a decision because it's been made already. (Just an example and you may have good reasons for not wanting to condition yourself into this particular reflex, but it's an area where I would habitually lie or ignore ("No, sorry" to "can you spare any change" is a lie from me unless I actually don't have any on me) until decided I did not want to anymore, and realized I didn't have to.

There is no reason to let yourself be convinced that you were wrong and casual generosity is not a virtue or that doing someone a favor when you're able to is somehow denying your own needs - this isn't about rewriting your moral code, which seems pretty sound; it's just about establishing a bunch of new reflexes. It is hard but it is completely possible. What you have to do, though, is do all the moral agonizing before anything like this comes up, so you know your answer when you're taken by surprise and you don't have to play for time to work it out on the spot. I don't think there is a good way to think through all the pros and cons any faster, you just have to do it in advance and then, when you enter a likely space for such things to happen, say to yourself "I am going to..." whatever it is you would like to be a person who does.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:24 PM on July 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Knowing what the right decision is has always been easy and fast for me: what would I want if I were in the other person's shoes?

Making the right decision is a different matter. That is a lifelong project. So, in this specific instance, you didn't want the inconvenience...are you stressed? Running late for something? Feel awkward spending time / making conversation with strangers? Feel possessive of your leisure time? Embarrassed that you don't know where your jumper cables are and you don't know how to work them? Those are the things that would have made me lie and say no (which I'm 99% sure I would have done too). That's what I try to work on.
posted by sallybrown at 8:08 PM on July 13, 2016

When this happens to me, I try to chalk up my response to a natural self-preservation instinct and resolve to do better next time. I don't think it's worth it to rehash what happened-- he or she asked, you gave a white lie, that's the end of it. Now that you have the time to think about it, you've come to the conclusion that you really could have waited around for 20 minutes. Cool! Do that next time, if you have 20 minutes to spare. If you don't, no worries. It's all a learning experience. It's okay for morality to be something that emerges out of encounters with the world, and you don't have to give a perfect response every time. Incrementally better responses are awesome and not to be underestimated.
posted by naturalnumbers at 8:40 PM on July 13, 2016

My rule of thumb: I make sure I mindfully take my emotions out of the equation, just in case they cloud my judgment and become my own lazy justification for not taking the "high road." I find that when I act based on how I feel that moment instead of Doing What Is Right/Ethical... I often end up with regrets.
posted by tackypink at 10:49 PM on July 13, 2016

Get into a good habit of not answering requests immediately. You'll avoid having your response be your first animal brain instinct. You still might choose the first response, but you give yourself some 30 sec. to a minute to confirm and that way, you can feel better about your decision.

Train a standard meaningless response which gives you a minute or so to think. Examples could be...
- can you repeat your question please? I was thinking about something else and didn't catch you.
- can you please give me 30 seconds, I have to call my spouse/kids/parents? I'll get right back to you.
- wow, that's a tough one.

The best part of this method, is that you can begin to implement it immediately in all aspects of your life. You simply train yourself to give the standard delay and not to say yes/no until after 30 sec. Almost all the time, you'll just take 30 sec. longer to answer, but you'll be practiced and ready for when it counts.

posted by jazh at 12:48 AM on July 14, 2016

One thing that helps me do the right thing is thinking of my grandfather. He was an officer in the army and all around just really badass. He treated everyone with the same respect, didn't matter if you were an officer or enlisted (or a 12-year-old girl). He showed so much humor and kindness in all things, and he always had time for stuff. Something to def. strive for.

On a more morbid note (?), my dad always tells me to think about my death (re behavior/choices). if you would like peeps to show up to say goodbye (not to just make sure you really kicked it) at your last shindig, trying to level up your virtues is a good way to accomplish that. that sort of thing.
posted by speakeasy at 2:55 AM on July 14, 2016

Have you read Thinking, Fast and Slow? It might provide a framework for thinking about this sort of thing.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:06 PM on July 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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