Normalcy bias and our broken perception of morality

Michael S. Rozeff has a provoking entry over at the Lew Rockwell blogistan:

Our civilization and every institution in it is permeated with lies. The lies are so thick that they pass for truths. The notion that America is a free country is one. Another is that it is a Christian country, by and large. If it were, could torture become institutionalized? Would so-called good people stand by and evilly imprison hundreds of thousands of Americans because of drugs? Is that the kind of mercy or pity or compassion that Christ promoted? Would Christians who were true to Christ be supportive of a murderous State? Of ourse not. Their support shows the truth of their perversion of Christianity amid their lies, which they so firmly believe and repeat that they take them as truth. Wake up, brothers and sisters. Every so often, some event occurs that reveals the lies, and truth pokes its head above the muck in which it is buried. For me, today at least, that event was the news that Bradford Manning was being made to sleep naked in his cell. The immediate lie was that this was for his own safety! What total baloney. The bigger lie is that such psychological/physical pressure and torture is acceptable moral behavior for jailers because they are Armed Forces Jailers. This is total nonsense. The truth is that the man is being denied his rights and tortured into the bargain. It used to be that Americans thought of other nations as being below them that had dictators and used torture and arbitrary jailings and looked at persons as mere clumps of matter, rather than the human beings that they are. Now America has descended to this level, if it ever was above it. This treatment of Manning is the furthest thing from Christian behavior. It is godless, and as godless as the Communism that used to be taken as an enemy of American virtue and exceptionalism. What a joke that is! The truth emerges. It of course emerged in this land long before this in its treatment of the black race, among others. The lie was perpetrated that they were inferior as human beings rather than God’s children and brothers under the skin as all of us are. What lie and excuse now covers the mistreatment of white Americans, sending them off to die and be maimed in fruitless wars? Or groping them at every airport in the land? There is no end to the lies. This is a land of lies, and in this it is not exceptional.

The question often arises: How is our moral compass so broken? How did we get to this point? Well I’ll try to give some of you an education on what’s up and perhaps remind others how easy it is for even the saints to be led astray. You see, more than a few people have been snookered into the normalcy bias of a destructive system by our mass reactions to what is little more than mass inaction. There’s a very scientific reason why the US mainstream media keeps a tight lid on protests and almost never air them live as they are happening: they inspire others to join through something called the Bystander Effect:

Check out this video of a cool, yet eerie, study done called the “bystander effect” that showed pedestrians literally ignoring a person passed out on the sidewalk because no one else did a fucking thing. Again, mass reaction to mass inaction.

What’s great though is that moment one person notices, then the new normal is to participate. In a study covered by Malcom Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point he covers this with overwhelmingly good prose (which I’ll try not to overly malign with my retelling). One of my favorite examples in his book is an experiment where students at some seminary were able to be tested on for their moral direction. They found that by merely telling someone they were late to give a speech, they were able to somehow wipe away their compassion and some literally stepped over a dude on the sidewalk passed out, because: GOD DAMMIT THEY WERE LATE… Ironically the speech to be given was in the context of the good Samaritan, woops.

What’s great about these experiments shows our mass reaction to time. The implication that someone’s time has been accorded more valuable seems to create an attitude that it is hazardous to help someone who’s time is less valuable. We encounter the normalcy bias here as well because as we’ve been so wonderfully been conditioned by ourselves: who in their right mind would spend a lot of hard work and time, making their time valuable to themselves and others, only to give it away on the way to something important!

It’s clearly time we evolve past this troublesome moral blind spot.

Stephen VanDyke

I've published HoT along with about 300+ friends since 2002. We're all Americans who are snarky and love our country. I'm a libertarian that registered Republican because I like to win elections. That's pretty much it.

  1. If everyone in school learned about the bystander effect, normalcy bias, the crabs in a bucket metaphor, the fifth monkey phenomenon, and the allegory of the cave we would all be better for it.

  2. A huge part of the problem is that we are inundated with reports of injustice happening that nobody is stopping *in far far away lands*

    This negative oh-dearism approach helps people remain complacent in their inactivity because it’s more than they feel they can handle. So eventually when some injustice happens nearby that could be stopped, the apathy and normalcy bias is conditioned to be second nature.

  3. One commenter sais: “A huge part of the problem is that we are inundated with reports of injustice happening that nobody is stopping *in far far away lands*”

    – I agree – I don’t want to hear about all the bad stuff happening to other people! This should make me very sensitive to issues happening around me. Wait issues around me also desensitize me – so I am going to ignore them too. This will make me very sensitive to issue happening to ME!

    About the article – the guy wants this species to “evolve” hah – I guess someone forgot to tell him he’s not a god.

    But more to the point: Steven V. why don’t you start evolving yourself and instead of writing an article about being a “Good Samaritan”, you actually DO SOMETHING and go to Africa and help them out – and incidentally sell everything you have and use the money to feed them – because while you own a computer – someone in South Africa is starving to death. Unless you think that YOUR time and YOUR possessions are somehow more VALUEABLE then those of starving African children.

    1. I do what I can, where I can. But you have a point: it’s never enough, and it probably never will be. But I’ll keep giving what I can of my time and money (and I don’t feel compelled to blab about it), and maybe it can inspire others to do what they can to make the world less full of the j’accuse dickfaces amonst us. (I’m raising my had as an offender, and using it to high five, not bitchslap).

      I know I’m guilty of fingerpointing as well when it comes to NOT DOING ENOUGH, but I’m at a point where I’ve been trying to be better at just leading by example, not spouting empty rhetoric in online comments.