Archive for September, 2010

Empathy and narcissism in business students

September 30, 2010 1 comment

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge

Throughout my encounters in the few business classes that I’ve taken, I noticed that students are taught in subtle, yet discernible ways that competitiveness and risk-taking are valued qualities that make you a survivor in the world which revolves around money. If you have not internalized those qualities, you will have a severe handicap when competing with others for the limited resources available in the economic system. Despite that in one or two classes business students were taught that empathy and understanding would enhance their leadership status, generally students were advised to adhere to strict utilitarian goals that would enhance profitability.

The most depressing fact, however, is that the invisible hand is not always designed to make others better off after seeking our own self-interest (which I equate with profitability). Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher and the father of free economics, disagreed with that:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. (source)

Although the invisible hand can have and does have a positive influence, if given the opportunity to cheat, many self-interested individuals in the business world would readily do so, despite bringing harm to others. The evidence, which might not be highly generalizable, is given below.

Several researchers wanted to find out if high rates of narcissism among business students would predict less ethical decision making, and if high rates of empathy would make business students more prone to make more ethical decisions.

In order to do this, Brown et. al administered a web survey to 244 students, out of which 97 were finance students, 73 management students, 42 marketing students, and 32 accounting students. The survey was designed to find (1) “information about students’ psychological profiles, and how they felt they would act in certain ethical situations,” and (2)  information about “students’ demographic and academic backgrounds.” Additionally, researchers compared whether those majoring in finance and accounting are more likely to be insensitive and and show self-interest than students in management and marketing majors.

In the first part of the survey, students were asked how they felt they would act in situations where they would receive a high-payoff  by acting dishonestly. They were given two situations, one of which described a business setting, and one that focused on a more personal context. A sample question is provided below:

In an effort to increase productivity, the owner of a small business has ordered ten personal computers for use by his staff. When the UPS shipment arrives, he notices that the invoice from the mail-order house bills only nine PCs, even though all ten were included with the shipment. The owner has two options. (1) He can inform the mail-order house of its error and ask to be billed for the correct amount; or (2) he can pay the amount shown on the invoice and take no further action….If YOU were the owner in the situation described above, what are the chances you would inform the mail-order house of its mistake and ask to be billed for the correct amount?

The students were required to provide their answers on a Likert scale, which ranged from 0-1% (virtually no chance) to 100 % (virtually certain), divided into 11 increments.

After that, students were asked to give responses on a range of selfism (narcissism) questions and empathy questions. For the selfism questions students had to answer on another Likert scale whether they agree or disagree with statements such as, “Thinking of yourself is no sin in this world today,” or “Getting ahead in life depends mainly on thinking of yourself first.” For the empathy questions, such as “I love to help others,” students followed the same procedure. These questions were asked to get a profile about students’ narcissistic and empathic tendencies.

Researchers found that empathy and narcissism were good predictors of how students would act in a proxy ethical decision-making setting. Students who exhibited high rates of narcissism were more likely to answer for the sample question given above that they would not reveal the mistake in the mail-order for the 10 computers. Additionally, researchers found that students who are in accounting and finance majors are more likely to act unethically when compared to students in management and marketing majors.

Brown et. al advise us, however, that the findings do not overrule the possibility that students selecting to major in business may display callous tendencies before they self select their majors. It might be that the nature of the profession is unrelated to ethical decision-making.


Brown, T. A., Sautter, J. A., Littvay, L., Sautter, A. C. & Bearnes, B. (2010). Ethics and Personality: Empathy and Narcissism as Moderators of Ethical Decision Making in Business Students. Journal of Education for Business, 85(4), 203-208. doi:10.1080/08832320903449501

Friday Debates- Ethical Relativism and Encounters with Aliens

September 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Alright, this might seem ridiculous, but I have to confess something that goes beyond the limits of absurdity. Yesterday I had my first encounter with an alien. This is how he looked like:

Mr. Bojo

Yes, I call him Bojo. I am not sure about the “Mr.” yet. Maybe he is a hermaphrodite. Or maybe he artificially created himself in some ultramundane lab. Wait. Is it even possible to create yourself? Never-mind that. Who cares what sex Bojo is or about logical conclusions related to self-creation?

I will not go on expounding how I felt about this encounter. Besides being probably the most important person on Earth right now, maybe even more important than Obama, Jesus, and Buddha combined, or a hundred times more important than Glen Beck is in the eyes of the tea-party sympathizers, I feel that no matter what I will tell you about Mr. Bojo, nothing will not be taken seriously. Because I do not want to spend my life fettered by stigma, I will just dust every evidence about Bojo under the carpet and let it stay there. Yes, Mr. Bojo will be my little secret.

Still, lets just pretend that I did meet an alien, ok? Can you accept that? Can I trust you that you will accept that without making a judgment about my sanity? Yes? Alright, read on then.

Mr. Bojo came to me, as all aliens probably do, in an unexpected manner. He just solidified out of thin air and asked me to be calm.

Me: “Whatever dude. I am probably in a dream right now. It’s ok to have visions when you suffer from insomnia. ”

Bojo:“I am real. And I have questions.”


B:“I will not shoot you. I come in peace.”

M:“Ok, got it. What are the questions?”

B:“We consider some of your practices morally wrong, hence, I came to bring reason to you. I came here to find out how I can do that.”

M:“Well, we are flawed morally in a variety of aspects. We have minor vices and we have major vices; we have virtues that in certain situations cause harm and suffering;  we kill, steal, willingly force our interests on some, and willingly show allegiance based on  arbitrary attributes to others;  we are  good at distorting the truth, as you probably noticed in a bevy of leaders in politics, religion, and science;  we are efficient at anything you would call morally wrong.  We know that. It’s not big news. We’ve been working on our characters. We’re getting there.”

B:“Yes, and I came here to help you. ”

M:“How can you help us? Do you want to be part of the 6.8 billion people who said that they’ve figured it out what’s wrong with our morality? Do you? It’s not like we need a divine hand to show us how to live our life. We know to what we should aim. We just are not sure how it can be done properly.”

B: “You do not fully understand me. I would not bother with correcting behaviors about which you have knowledge of. Nevertheless, I think that you need some divine hand to show you that what you commonly consider a nefarious behavior is really not that bad.  I want to know why so few humans are so behind in practicing cannibalism?”

M: “Whoa there, dude! Can you explain why you condone cannibalism? Do you really eat members of your own kind? That’s sick >(.”

B: “I knew that you would be disgusted. We do not practice cannibalism in the way you envision it. Also, our understanding of kinship is different from yours. We consider most living organisms who have an instinct of self-preservation as part of a big community, where the more intelligent life forms have the same value as the less intelligent ones. In order to put it in a more comprehensible way for you, we believe that a human life is worth as much as that of a chicken. Of course, we had to establish a certain criteria for what we consider a life-form that has an instinct of self-preservation. Any microorganisms,  bacteria and viruses, are not included, as well as any organisms whose death is imminent.”

M: “This does not explain why you advocate cannibalism.”

B: “Quite the contrary. You missed an important part of my explanation.”

M: “Which is…”

B: “Organisms whose death is imminent because of biological causes are not considered to have the same value as those whose life is yet to be lived. Hence, we eat our kin only in cases where they either have no desire to live or are dying. Of course, since we cannot predict unexpected deaths, we tend to eat those who have died from accidents within an hour or so. And, as you probably already surmised, we do not eat those whose biomass can harm us. We do this because we consider it morally wrong to eat any living creature who has both the desire and the right to exist. Therefore, I came to convince you that you should adopt cannibalism.”

M: “Your reasoning sound very much like the reasoning of Albert Schweitzer. He was philosopher and philanthropist who proposed that we extend our ethical duties to other creatures on Earth. The problem is that such reasoning is generally inapplicable to everyone.For example, you want us to adopt the duty of non-harm to other animals cohabiting with us, which to some extent can be done, but you would have to impose the same rules on everyone. How would you make organisms who are carnivorous by nature conform to your standards then? In addition to this, I do not think that the majority of meat-lovers on Earth would be happy to follow your ethical guidelines. In order to illustrate what I mean, I will bring up the conclusions to which Protagoras came. He believed that a moral law is good as long as it maintains harmony in a community. An undesirable moral law would be a law that renders a society dysfunctional. Most people on Earth are quite happy with eating nuggets, burgers, and tuna wraps, so there is no tension created by our behavior, even though it might seem extremely unfit for you that we show little respect for the animals we eat. According to Protagoras, you should let us be. It’s our society and we are happy with the way it is ordered. Your views on morality are subjective and are not applicable for us.

B: “Simply because an action is deemed fit for your society and your time does not mean that it is inherently moral. In order to convince you, let us watch something together.”

M: “Whoa, dude! Is that a holoscreen?”

B: “Just watch.”

M: “Hmm…I see your point. I am partially convinced that treating all creatures who have the will to live with respect is important, and that refraining from harming them should be one of our moral priorities. But you have not sustained a strong defense for cannibalism. I take it that no loving son will feast on his mother after her death. Am I right?”

B: “You are. I am still trying to establish how I could convince humans to adopt the same view on cannibalism as we do. That is why I came to you.”

M: “Sorry. No suggestions here. Even if you make up a utilitarian argument for that, you do realize that for the majority of humans it would take an insurmountable emotional effort to eat another human?”

B: “Hmm. So you understand the rationality of my argument then.”

M: “I do. You propose that we eat our dying kin because it would be irrational to let so much *food* go to waste. Nevertheless, I am afraid that you will find few supporters here on Earth who would agree with you.”

B: “If that is the case, then our discussion is over.”

Then, Mr. Bojo dispersed, leaving me with a strong conviction that I was, after all, someone special.


Alien sketch taken from here.

RSA Animate- The Empathic Civilization

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Categories: Video

Change Blindness

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Categories: Video

Debunking Freud Part III- Love is for Losers

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

This article is one of the many articles that will focus on exposing some of the fallacies in Freud’s theoretical make-up. Other posts in this series can be found through the following links:

  1. Debunking Freud Part I- Unconscious Homosexuality
  2. Debunking Freud Part II- The Origins of Male Homosexuality

Before we go on exploring the new, exciting topic in our series, let us go though a small exercise. Below you will find two links, each of which will lead you to a survey. The survey will consist of a quasi Thematic Apperception Test. Why quasi? Well, because I came up with it on the spot, and I have not the slightest idea if it will measure or reveal what I think it is supposed to measure.  So, mesdames et mesdemoiselles, click on Lola to proceed. Gentlemen, you follow Bugs.

Lola Bunny


Bugs Bunny


The quasi TAT test you went through, assuming that you did, was cued to make you identify with a person of the same gender as you in order to describe the feelings and thoughts about a loved one. Each picture in the test was chosen so that you would perceive a slight imbalance in the rapport within the couple. Hence, those who clicked on the picture with Lola saw a man genuflecting in front of a woman, while those those who clicked on Bugs saw a man holding a woman on top of him in a slightly leisurely (and maybe even sexy) way. Thus, I hoped to show through those photos that one partner shows more love to another (not that I think that I was successful in that endeavor).

So, how does this small exercise tie with Freud? Freud had a very nasty, Hobbesian view about humans. For him even such a sentiment as love is not an emotion that stems out of selfless desire. On the contrary, Freud considered that love is essentially selfish,  and that any exceptions to this are the result of the superego overcoming the id.  In the Freudian realm, when we mention something related to love, we are essentially talking about object-love. When the infant comes to this world and later develops an identity, anything that gratifies or thwarts his needs is considered an object. So, objects include not only such mundane, inanimate concepts  as chairs, tables, etc., but also animate concepts, e.g. mother, father, dog…

As the child interacts with his world, some objects gain more significance than others. The amount of importance an object gains is proportional to how well it satisfies the id of the child. Hence, because mothers are highly nurturing, children see them as important objects. Moreover, because some objects are more important than others, they tend to receive more libido, a type of emotional investment from the part of the child. Because of this libidinous investment, for Freud love is considered more like an instinct that helps the child survive.

In his book on narcissism, Freud came to even a more unconventional conclusion that might have outraged those who consider love as a pure emotion. This is what he said:

Loving in itself, insofar as it is longing an deprivation, lowers self-regard, whereas being loved, having one’s love returned and possessing the loved object raises it once more.

What he means is that you feel good and happy as long as you’re loved, and you subject yourself to abjection once you start loving someone. Loving is for losers and being loved is for cool guys(and girls).

Fromm, a renown philosopher and psychologist, did not like the whole love-object affair. He fought that there is no such thing as “love-object.” For him love was an inner activity, where the loved ones become part of who you are, and that speaking of someone you love as being an object is simply strange and materialistic.

I do not know if Freud’s conclusion about love are scientifically valid. I think that Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love has more evidence behind it that explains at least partly some intricacies related to love. Nevertheless, Freud’s theory is highly appealing. Try to remember a time when you loved someone and that love was not returned. How did you feel? I am sure that this is not a sentiment that you would like to experience again. Now, if you are among the lucky Freudlings, try and recall how you felt when you were loved? Did you, at some point, feel that maybe the person who loves you is somehow owned by you? If yes, then maybe through the TAT test you might have revealed that you do see loved ones as objects.



Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism: An introduction. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: The Hogarth Press.

Fromm, E. (1980) Greatness and limitations of Freud’s thought. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. {The book was originally published in Germany under the title Sigmund Freud Psychoanalyse–Grosse und Grezen}

Perlman, E. (1986). Introduction: Narcissism and Object Choice in Freud British Journal of Psychotherapy, 3 (1), 60-64 DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0118.1986.tb00955.x