It's Harder To Be Considerate If There Are Stipulations Attached

Considering other people's feelings shouldn't really be that hard, right? Do the right thing. Go above and beyond when you can. Well, it's more complicated than it looks, as Wall Street Journal 's Robert Sapolsky explained today in a little article about doing the right thing that will bring back memories of Psych 101 — and maybe even help you push through that January grump.

It turns out that the level of consideration you demonstrate is tied in with the part of your brain that determines how much you're going to comply with a directive in a social situation. Psychologically speaking, writes Sapolsky, taking other people's feelings into consideration is actually easier when there's no stipulations attached to it.

It's like when you just stop caring about overdue fines on a book and don't panic about returning it today or tomorrow, even though it's the right thing to do. Or, as Sapolsky points out, "When an authoritarian hand imposes a floor of 'at least,' recipients of the edict often turn it into a ceiling of 'at most'." He explains:

Consider your average preschool, which ends each day with parents picking up their kids. But there's a problem: A handful of parents are habitually late. The school sends out a note, urging timeliness: "Please be considerate of our wonderful staff who, after a long day of caring for your kids, are tired and want to go home," etc.
This works with some parents, but there are still chronic offenders. The school finally becomes punitive. Parents who are late start getting a fine added to the tuition bill. What happens? Against all seeming logic, the incidence of tardiness increases.

This has a lot to do with the brain — the actual circuitry of it. There's a little bit of the brain called the rLPFC (right lateral prefrontal cortext), and it has to do with complying with edicts like this. In fact, there's a direct causation: It actually controls how much you comply, changing it with the severity of the punishment.

But it's inherently social: It only kicks in when the interaction is person-to-person, as opposed to, say, a pesky human-coin-operated-parking-meter.