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Sweet Little Lies
Moral Licensing, Anti-Semitism, and Belonging Uncertainty
“I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.”
― S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
For decades, symphony orchestras were incredibly biased in their hiring practices, selecting far more men than women. Sadly, this put orchestras in bad company with other professions with notorious hiring imbalances, including business, technology, and Jewish communal service.
However, the difference between symphony orchestras and other industries was that symphonies found an ingenious hack to fight implicit bias.
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Decades ago, orchestras addressed their hiring bias by switching to “blind” auditions, where the auditioning musician stood behind a screen so that the people evaluating them could hear the music, but not see the person; the positive effects of this change were documented by economists Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse.1 When it turned out that this intervention was only partially sufficient due to the noise of high heels leading evaluators to figure out who was a male and who was a female, orchestras further tweaked the model by asking everyone to remove their shoes.
I won’t blame you if this story inspires and depresses you.
Shouldn’t we aim for the inherent biases in hiring to be eliminated altogether, rather than tweaking the process? On a personal level, I would much rather be able to say that I eliminated all biases from my mind and that I can approach the world with what John Rawls calls a “veil of ignorance” to ensure equity.
But I hope that I can convince you, dear reader, that learning our limitations is an optimistic act precisely because it is based on realism. When people believe that they are better than they actually are, they become more likely to make predictable mistakes. For me, choosing to ignore predictable mistakes is one of the most pessimistic choices a person can make because it amounts to premature surrender.
The past few weeks have been tough for the Jewish people, with several horrific anti-Semitic incidents taking place in the United States. Given that Parashat Hayyei Sarah includes an exchange between Abraham and his servant that I always found problematic on the prejudice front,2 I think it’s important to frame some of the events over the past few weeks through the lens of Moneyball.
Jews have no obligation to excuse prejudice, but we benefit from understanding the mental mistakes that justify the worst inclinations of humanity so that we will not fall into the same trap.
Have you ever met someone who began a sentence regarding gender equality with the expression “No one is a bigger feminist than me, but…,” or a discussion about racism by saying, “I voted for Obama twice, but…”?
I have…many, many times. Sigh. And sadly, I’m sure I’ve made a variation of one of these statements, at several points in my life.
While it would be wrong for me to assume that the person is a misogynist or racist just because of what they say in the second half of the sentence, it’s worth being aware that humans are predisposed to use past good behavior to permit future bad behavior.
Enter moral licensing.
Also called the licensing effect, moral credential effect, or self-licensing, moral licensing recognizes that human beings tend to give themselves permission to do something “bad” after they did something “good.”3 In a 2001 study, researchers found that “people are more willing to express attitudes that could be viewed as prejudiced when their past behavior has established their credentials as nonprejudiced persons.” This is the equivalent of saying “Some of my best friends are Jews!” after making a statement that is anti-Semitic.
Yet moral licensing is not limited to issues of racism. In a 2010 study, psychologists found that “past moral behavior makes people more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral.”4 In fact, sometimes people proactively do moral things “if they know they might need a moral license for an upcoming dubious action.”5 My personal favorite example: people who purchased a “green” product were more prone afterward to lie or steal.6
If you would like a great introduction to moral licensing, listen to this podcast from Malcolm Gladwell.
Moral licensing provides an explanation, without making an excuse, for how someone can create a mental narrative where he/she/they endorses horrendous prejudices after knowing exactly what it is like to experience another kind of prejudice. And the more we recognize how the human mind often permits us to draw nefarious conclusions about others, the more we will have the humility to question our biases before we give voice to them or condone them.
Until I read Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies, I had never heard of Google Trends. But once I read his book, I started using the website all the time to get a sense of what the global population “thinks” via their Google searches. For example, in 2022, the most popular search about Judaism on Google is “Judaism and Abortion.” I wonder why (actually, I don’t)…
Davidowitz is an economist and former Google Data Scientist who used the data accessed from Google searches to understand the hidden truths of what people believe. I am not the first person to say this, but there is reason to believe that Google is the most “all-knowing” brain in the world today,7 given that people are far more likely to search for something on Google that they would never share with anyone else.
Returning to moral licensing, Davidowitz opens the book with how he found that places in the United States with higher numbers of racist searches on Google were less likely to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 than they were for John Kerry in 2004 (8).8 And lest you think that the searches were only found in places that are often tagged as racist hotbeds (i.e. red states), sorry to disappoint you; Davidowitz found that “racist searches were no higher in places with a high percentage of Republicans than in places with a high percentage of Democrats" (Ibid., 9). Ouch.
For me, these findings and moral licensing are intertwined. Humans are flawed people, and we consistently want to believe that we are better than the evidence suggests. I’d rather be proactively aware of my flaws and try to overcome them, as opposed to blindly assuming that I am above the fray without evidence.
Overcoming Belonging Uncertainty: I had not heard the term “belonging uncertainty” until I read this article, but now I’m kind of obsessed. The article is a fascinating take on how we might fight increased tribalism by helping people feel less anxious about belonging.
The Great Nonprofit Turnover: Unlike for-profit businesses, most nonprofits do not have the ability to financially incentivize job candidates when there is a hiring crisis. Here is an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on how nonprofits can address it.
How Game Theory Explains Irrational Behavior: We are going to learn about game theory at a later date, but for now, just know that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a version of game theory.9 In the meantime, I loved this piece about an upcoming book on how game theory explains rational and irrational behavior.
On Michael Crichton’s Busy Ambition: Michael Crichton was responsible for many of the pop culture phenomena of my childhood (e.g. Jurassic Park, E.R., etc.). Here’s Cal Newport’s take on what we can learn from Crichton regarding the essence of “deep work.”
Let’s Declare Pandemic Amnesty: Emily Oster has been my favorite writer about COVID, particularly because she’s an economist who thinks many of these problems can be better understood using a data-driven approach. Here’s her take on the next phase of living in a COVID world.
Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of "Blind" Auditions on Female Musicians,” in American Economic Review, Volume 90, Issue 4 (September 2000), 715-741.
When Abraham instructs his servant to go find a wife for Isaac, he tells him “and I will make you swear by Adonai, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell” (Bereishit 24:3). Although we do not know the nationality of Abraham’s servant, it is reasonable to assume that the servant is a “local”; in other words, Abraham is telling a Canaanite that he does not want his son to marry a Canaanite. Unfortunately, if this is the contextual meaning, it’s an incredibly disturbing representation of what is sometimes called the “Curse of Ham,” a way that the bible has been used to justify racial inequities. And like all problematic texts, we can choose to run toward them and own the moral complexity, or run away from it, and pretend it doesn’t exist. As you can imagine, I choose the former…
Benoit Monin and Dale Miller, “Moral Credentials and the Expression of Prejudice,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 81, Issue 1 (2001), 33-43.
Anna C. Merritt, Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin, “Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad,” in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Volume 4, Issue 5 (May 2010), 344-357.
Philipp Simbrunner and Bodo B. Schlegelmilch, “Moral licensing: a culture-moderated meta-analysis,” in Management Review Quarterly, Volume 67 (2017), 201-225.
Scott Galloway, whom I love, says “Google is the Modern God,” but as a rabbi, I cannot go that far, for a variety of reasons. Google may be omniscient, but it cannot do anything with the knowledge it possesses unless a human being programs it to recognize patterns in the data (i.e. Google is not omnipotent). Galloway is also an atheist, so I suspect we would disagree about a variety of things. But he has great taste in Halloween costumes.
I do not want to put any of those words into this post, but you can imagine the kinds of slurs, myths, and people that would give a data scientist an indication that someone was making a racist search.
One Shabbat afternoon, my group on USY Israel Pilgrimage did the prisoner’s dilemma as a Saturday afternoon activity. One person figured out the game quickly, and explained to all of us how to “win.” Another person refused to let us employ the plan. One became a rabbi, and the other became a Supreme Court clerk. Just thought you’d want to know…