Thursday, October 29, 2009

A liar is a liar; or, an introduction to Jane Jacobs

This morning's LA Times has an article about a report by an LA-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, "which surveyed nearly 7,000 people in various age groups nationwide." They had two major findings:
  • "(H)abits formed in childhood persist: Those who cheated in high school are more likely as adults to lie to a customer, inflate an insurance or expense claim, cheat on taxes and lie to their spouses."
  • High school kids today lie and cheat more than older people do (details in the article).
If both of these are true, then we can infer that high school kids today cheat more than high school kids a generation or two ago and that old people will lie and cheat more in a generation or two than they do now, when they are replaced by the high school kids of today.

I have mixed feelings about these findings, as I do about the whole issue of generational differences. I recently read Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, by Jean Twenge, for our book club. Like others, Twenge has some interesting survey data, states it carefully, and then talks about the issues without any of the caveats in the careful statement, so the body of the book overstates the data, though you can find the caveats if you look. But most important, she looks at kids today compared with previous kids but not previous old people with current old people or previous young people with current old people. It may be a societal rather than a generational change, but you can't tell by the data she adduces.

But the generational difference is not what most interests me here. I'm very interested in biological influences on behavior. I believe that many chunks of personality and behavior are determiined either genetically or epigenetically. (Epigenetics deals with  gene expression, i.e., what makes different genes turn on or off in a living organism. I sometimes say genetics, when I mean to include gene expression, so I don't have to type an extra couple of words.) And this seems to be such a case.

I'm getting ahead of myself here. This is the right place to bring in Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, by Jane Jacobs, a fine book that has influenced my thinking a lot, but it's an involved topic, and I don't want to do the subject an injustice. I'll just say that Jacobs divides people into two groups ("commercial moral syndrome" and "guardian moral syndrome") according to what kinds of things they consider right or honorable and what they consider corrupt. One group thinks it is okay to lie for the sake of the task (think cops lying to suspects about what evidence they have, politicians lying about death panels, diplomats lying to other diplomats about their country's intentions).

So if more kids today think it's okay to lie for the sake of the task, then it may be that we are on our way to becoming a more guardian and less commercial country. I think that would be a shame.

UPDATE: Science Daily reports today that bad driving may be genetic.
"People with a particular gene variant performed more than 20 percent worse on a driving test than people without it -- and a follow-up test a few days later yielded similar results. About 30 percent of Americans have the variant."
The gene has to do with how much of a person's brain is involved in a task taking attention; less = bad driver.
The gene variant isn't always bad, though. Studies have found that people with it maintain their usual mental sharpness longer than those without it when neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, Huntington's and multiple sclerosis are present

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