Dacher Keltner Ponders Goodness Among Varying Cultures

Question: Is there a common sense of goodness across cultures?

Keltner:    No, there’s, as there should be and as cultures develop in their own historical ways and in their historical moments, there’s a lot of variability in how we think about what is good and it can range from the expression of personal identity which is much more privileged in the west.  It can, in East Asian cultures, it focuses more on folding into social collectives and what I believe is that evolution designed us with a set of capacities, a wide-ranging set of capacities that enable these different pursuits of goodness.

Question: How has evolution affected goodness?

Keltner:    I’ve spent my career studying literally millisecond behaviors that evolution has shaped in our millions of years of primate and mammalian evolution and there are behaviors like the friendly smile that gleams in the eyes or the nice laugh that has a beautiful tone of voice or the friendly touch or the wonderful eye contact that people make.  And as I’ve done that work and I’ve linked it up to what you might call the ethical or moral emotions, emotions like respect, gratitude, compassion, kindness, I think what that provides is a very interesting answer to your question which is in our day-to-day living we have evolved this amazingly sophisticated subtle behaviors that promote goodness.

Question: What motivates us to practice goodness?

Keltner:    I’m taken aback by the concept of there are no free gifts.  There are tons of free gifts and they’re happening all the time as we conduct our daily lives and there are free gifts and this is what we study in our laboratory and these are the gifts of social exchange that have been honed by millions of years of evolution.  The free gifts are things like somebody pats you on the back and it activates the reward regions of your brain, up in the orbital prefrontal cortex.  Somebody compliments you and your vagus nerve fires and creates a feeling of acceptance and connection.  You make nice eye-to-eye contact or you smile at somebody, you don’t even know that you smiled at them because they’re moving through their day and suddenly they’ve cardiovascular stress responses calm down.  So, all of those 3 examples are examples of pretty free and powerful gifts.  There’s a new science that is showing that when you give, it’s not even costly.  It’s rewarding so there are tremendous new neuroscience studies showing that if I give to you or if I cooperate with you, even at a little bit of economic sacrifice, the reward regions of the brain an area called the nucleus accumbens light up, making you feel a reward at this gift.  So, I would even say, there is a whole vocabulary or world of gifts that seem costly but are actually rewarding.

Question: Are we losing the potential for goodness as culture becomes more digitized?

Keltner:    This is a very complicated question and you know, I’ll tell you a little funny anecdote to illustrate sort of the broader theme here.  You know, as an evolutionary scientist, we are interested and we think about behaviors that help us survive and help us reproduce, and one of the truisms in the study of attraction and falling in love and finding a person you would eventually have offspring with is you have to be in their physical presence and it promotes that.  I asked my undergrads recently, you know, as a rhetorical question, how many of you have fallen in love with somebody, or are actively in love with someone, and in a relationship with someone you’ve never been around physically, and a third of the class said yes.  And the little evolutionary part of my brain said, well, good luck reproducing on that.  So, but here’s how I look at it, which is that in the context of our hominid evolution thousands of generations, we evolved in these small groups and to the best of our knowledge from studies of hundred gathered cultures and archaeology, the sense is that we were always in face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact and that led to the evolution of facial muscles and exquisite receptors in the skin, and eye contact and all those good stuff.  That all the data suggest is this key to health and happiness, and it raises a really interesting question about what are we losing in our more remote world, and I think there is a sense we’re losing a good deal.  We certainly are losing skin-to-skin and face-to-face.  I think, I’m [heartened] by the use of language in text messaging and that has wonderful properties and the voice but we do lose.

The Berkeley professor notices no common appreciation of goodness across cultures.

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