The Myth of the “Good” Person

Photo courtesy of Jens Ingvarsson/TheLicensingProject.com

The Myth of the “Good” Person

The Myth of the
“Good” Person

    It’s a side of civil disobedience that’s not often considered: “I was lying there on the ground and just terrified, to be totally honest.” This is Dolly Chugh, a social psychologist and professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, who was lying down on the floor of Toys “R” Us in Times Square, New York. It was part of a staged die-in organized by Black Lives Matter in protest of the death of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland who was shot by the police while he was playing with a toy gun. The protest was well-organized and peaceful, and it followed a long tradition of civil disobedience. But as Chugh was lying on the ground, she realized her presence was not her best form of contribution to the movement: “As much as I believed in this work, I just did not believe it was sustainable for me to be an active participant in the protest.” Not participating at all was not an option, though. So Chugh set out to find the middle ground between lying on the floor in Toys “R” Us and doing nothing.

    Which is what led to her book, How Good People Fight Bias: The Person You Mean to Be. Using data, experiments, and research, Chugh explores the unconscious biases we all carry, whether we know it or not. Chugh argues that the attunement of our moral compass requires constant attention. And more importantly, if we’re serious about building change, believing in what’s right isn’t enough.

  • How Good People Fight Bias
    How Good People Fight Bias:
    The Person You Mean to Be
    by Dolly Chugh
    Amazon, $17

A Q&A with Dolly Chugh

You argue against identifying as a “good person.” What’s the danger there?

The danger is that we tend to define it in a really narrow way. It’s a tight corner, and in that tight corner it becomes an either/or: Either we are a good person or we are not; either we are a bigot or we are not; either we have integrity or we do not; either we are racist or we are not. Some people refer to it as a fixed mind-set because there is no room for growth. What we know as social scientists is that the human mind relies on lots of shortcuts—and those shortcuts do lead to mistakes sometimes. No matter how good my intentions are, I am going to show bias. I have internalized bias from the world around me, and the ways my bias is going to show up are not going to be visible to me. I’m going to think that I’m doing fine, when in fact I’m having a negative impact on the world around me.

That’s why I’m a proponent of letting go of the “good person” definition that most of us have been holding on to and striving for a higher standard of what I call a “good-ish” person. A good-ish person does make mistakes; we’re not free of bias or mistakes. We make mistakes, but we own them and notice them when we do.

How might our eagerness to be seen as good hurt those around us?

In the book, I identify four “good” intentions that can lead us to view those we wish to help from an otherizing distance.

Savior Mode

You set out to help someone, and gosh what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we all be helping one another more? The issue is that sometimes the desire to help can be overshadowed by the desire to save, and saving is more about me than the person I’m there to help. One of the stories I share is of a student of mine who I knew had some financial constraints and some family challenges, so at various points, I had been supportive when he needed it, whether it was helping him find a job or helping him connect with some financial resources. It felt great to think that this kid might have dropped out of college if it hadn’t been for me, but I had gotten pretty hooked on that feeling of being his hero. This all became visible to me when I found out that his housing had fallen through and he was basically sleeping in the school library. What really devastated me when I found out wasn’t that he was sleeping in the library but that he hadn’t told me. That was a big red flag to me: I had been using him as fuel for my ego.

Sympathy Mode

There is a distinction between sympathy and empathy. Just as with savior mode, the issue was that I was centering myself over centering the student. What happens with sympathy is I’m still centering myself, but I’m centering my gratitude and my relief that I don’t have this problem. So I feel bad for you that you have this problem, but my emotional state is very focused on the fact that I’m relieved that I’m not you. Empathy is a little different. Empathy is: I am trying to understand what you are actually experiencing. I am putting your feelings at the center, because you and I may react differently to different things.

Tolerance and Difference Blindness Mode

A good example of this mode is color blindness. Color blindness in America manifests as a narrative where people often see themselves as not seeing color. Perhaps starting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, there’s a misunderstanding that when he said, “Children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he was saying that we should not see the color of people’s skin.

We know from people who study social perception that people do see race. We tend to make quick perceptions of age, of race, and of gender, of the people we meet, within milliseconds. It’s just factually incorrect that we’re not seeing race. Secondly, it suggests that there’s something not to be seen. Why wouldn’t you see race? The question isn’t whether you perceive race; it’s what you do with that information where inequities have arisen.

Typecasting Mode

Typecasting basically captures the ideas of pedestals or positive stereotypes—the “model minority” stereotype or the “women are wonderful” stereotype. The idea here is we are saying something positive about someone or a group, so that seems like there is nothing wrong with that. But in fact what we’re doing by typecasting people, whether it be in a positive or negative way, is we are limiting the possibilities of who they can be—and indirectly prescribing who they should be.

Imagine a narrow pedestal: If you have someone on this narrow pedestal and they don’t meet that pedestal descriptor of “women are wonderful”—that women are benevolent and nurturing and communal—but instead they are competitive or assertive, then they fall right off that pedestal. There’s nowhere to go because you’ve put them in such a tight little space.

How can we become more aware of our moral blind spots?

There are many paths. Sometimes it’s a matter of studying ourselves a little bit, and there are a number of ways to do it that range from taking the implicit association test—it’s free and anonymous—and that will give some hints to unconscious bias one might have. There are also ways we can audit ourselves: Who are the last ten people I asked for advice? What are the last ten books I read? What were the last ten podcasts I listened to? Who are the people I go to when I have good news to share?

Do an audit and get a sense of what you’ve surrounded yourself with in your life, and in what ways you are potentially hearing the same voices, hearing some voices more than others, and perhaps reinforcing systems you do not mean to enforce. Systems that are exclusionary. These kinds of self-audits—that are quiet and private and no one needs to know you’re doing them—start offering hints as to what is happening in our lives.

Is there a way to point out other people’s blind spots without making them feel defensive?

I don’t know who created this metaphor but it’s called heat versus light. The confrontation mode is the heat. There’s no attention to the comfort of the person you’re trying to influence. A very visible protest that creates lots of inconvenience for people is a heat-based mode of activism.

Light-based methods focus on talking to you in a way that makes you feel comfortable, meeting you where you are, not pushing too fast, not causing inconvenience or feelings that you’ve done something terribly wrong.

I am more of a light-based person in terms of how I influence others and like to be influenced. That said, one of my biggest learnings in writing the book was to not prioritize light over heat. I have learned through the writing of this book that when we look at movements of the past, historical movements, including the women’s rights movements and the civil rights movements, it’s actually the movements that have had both heat and light that have been the most successful. When you just have heat or just have light—sometimes it’s described as moderates versus radicals—you actually do not have as much progress. You need both in order for the work to advance. Learning that has made me more appreciative of the people who do bring the heat. I understand that makes people feel attacked, and I’m a professor—sometimes people are bringing the heat at me, and it doesn’t feel good at all. But I’ve started to appreciate that it’s good that there are people willing to do that. And then there are other people, like me, willing to take the light-based approach.

When you take the light-based approach, what specifically do you find to be most effective?

I use myself to model my own learning. If I’m going to ask someone else to look at their own behavior and grow, then I have to be willing to show the ways I’ve had to—and ways I’ve made mistakes. If I’m going to talk to someone else about the joke they made that was inappropriate, I need to also be willing to speak about the times I have said things I didn’t think were offensive and then someone else pointed out to me there was a problem with it. If you’re having conversations with people where you’re asking them to be a little bit embarrassed, then you must be willing to be embarrassed with them.

Professor Dolly Chugh is an author, a social psychologist, and a professor, focusing on the psychology of good people. As a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, Chugh teaches leadership, management, and negotiations in Stern’s MBA program and the NYU Prison Education Program. Prior to becoming an academic, she worked in the corporate world for eleven years; she received her BA from Cornell and her MBA and PhD from Harvard.Her first book, The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias, has received acclaim from Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Billie Jean King, and Angela Duckworth.