Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes of the dangers of cookies in her novel Americanah. The protagonist leads several diversity workshops until she realizes that the workshop attendees' primary motivation is not to learn but to feel better about themselves. Craving cookies, they sacrifice the opportunity for meaningful change.
The cookie craving intensifies when self-threat hits, as with the tragic events in Orlando. Many of us want to support Rachel and others who are marginalized. Yet we come up short. We want to do better by Rachel, but we might be unsure about how to do so. We might feel as if we are damned if we say something and damned if we don't. Many of us believe in the promise of equality and equity, diversity and inclusion, but do not know how to build those beliefs into reality.
Rachel will return toward the end of the book to describe where she found the support she needed. First, we're going to learn the four ways in which builders are different than believers. Let's begin by exploring how good people like you and me think.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF GOOD PEOPLE
I study the psychology of good people. I see myself as a good person and yet my behavior is filled with evidence to the contrary. I cling to antiquated gender stereotypes. I defend systems that favor well-off, well-connected families like mine. I misidentify people of the same race. I let homophobic jokes slide. I am judgmental of people whose gender identities confuse me. None of this makes me proud.
At the same time, I fight for equality, donate money to social justice causes, spend time supporting individuals from marginalized groups, and challenge the status quo. So my mind flips between a belief that I am as good as they come and a belief that I am no good at all. In the end, the belief that I am a good person always wins.
I am not alone. Most of us have what psychologists Karl Aquino and Americus Reed call a central "moral identity." Moral identity is a measure of whether I care about being a good person, not whether I am a good person. Their research reveals that most of us want to feel like good people. This is an identity we claim and want granted.
Now, just because many of us have a highly central moral identity does not mean that we agree on what is and is not moral. In fact, moral identity does not appear to be unique to any particular political affiliation, generation, gender, or belief system. While you and I may disagree on what is and is not moral, we both would bristle at any accusation that we lack morality. Even people who are engaging in crimes or bullying that others view as immoral may still see themselves as moral. A recent Washington Post story offered an in-depth profile of former white nationalist Derek Black, revealing that even KKK affiliates do not necessarily self-identify as racists.
While none of us are good all the time, and some of us are far from good a lot of the time, we still see ourselves as good. How do we sustain this view of ourselves? We hold a faulty assumption that our behavior pivots around our ethical standards and our moral values. That is not how our minds actually work. Our behavior pivots around our identity. I want to see myself as a good person, which I can accomplish by being a good person (doing X) or by convincing myself that I'm a good person (while doing the opposite of X). Even when we fall short, our reflex is to claim an identity as a good person. Evidence to the contrary is a self-threat.
It is difficult to overstate just how quickly and seamlessly we deal with self-threats. Our bodies are built to fight off bacteria and our minds are built to fight off self-threat. This does not make us bad people, but it does make us unlikely to recognize when we do bad things. The result is that all of us, even the "good people," do bad things. It is easy for us to see this in other people and much harder for us to see it in ourselves. Through it all, we cling to an illusion of being a perfectly ethical and unbiased person and to the idea that such a "good person" can exist. This illusion is problematic.
As a result, good people are prone to what my mentors—business school professor Max Bazerman and psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji—and I call "bounded ethicality." Bounded ethicality is the psychology of "good-ish" people. Good-ish people are sometimes good and sometimes not, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, like all of us. This model of bounded ethicality challenges ways of thinking and talking in which you are either a good person or not, a racist or not, an unethical human or not. We argue that this binary notion is seductive but misleading and scientifically inaccurate.