The psychology of transparency

There is a growing distrust of government officials and groups of such (commissions, agencies, etc.), and this distrust is mostly driven by well-publicized examples of bad behavior. In response, efforts to "open the window" and expose their actions have become very popular.

Many view this as an investigatory tool; a method to root out the bad and make more room for the good. This assumption will work in a pinch, but it leaves out important aspects of transparency and the individuals being exposed to it, and I believe a closer look will be good for our collective soul.

First, we need to dispense with the notion of "good" and "bad" people. If our brains were simply data processing units that worked with percentages and known variables, we might get away with it. But they aren't, and we can't. The inaccuracy with which we valuate others is only eclipsed by how poorly we ascribe value to ourselves.

Aside from those who suffer from sociopathy or other disorders, we all have some things in common. Regardless of our flaws, we want others to perceive that we are good. This probably has roots in some ancient primal drive, but merely the fact that it's there is sufficient, as far as I'm concerned. Because, it provides a (relatively) easy path for behavior modification on a large scale, as opposed to trying to fix an individual's (specific) behavior problems.

Just an aside: for the 7 years I served in the Army and the (later) 18 years in factory management, I dabbled in all sorts of behavior modification techniques. Like many who attempt this, I was presented with numerous ethical hurdles along the way, and fell flat on my face more than once. But one thing all that fumbling helped me realize is, altering a person's environment is much more effective than trying to alter the person.

The summary from this paper might help you see what I'm driving at:

We very confidently attribute character traits to other people in order to explain their behavior. But our attributions tend to be wildly incorrect and, in fact, there is no evidence that people differ in character traits. They differ in their situations and in their perceptions of their situations. They differ in their goals, strategies, neuroses, optimism, etc. But character traits do not explain what differences there are.

Our ordinary views about character traits can be explained without supposing that there are such traits. In trying to explain why someone has acted in a certain way, we concentrate on the figure and ignore the ground. We look at the agent and ignore the situation. We are naive in our understanding of the way others view a given situation. We suffer from a confirmation bias that leads us to ignore evidence against our attributions of character.

It is very hard to do studies that might indicate whether or not people differ in character traits, but the few studies that have been done do not support this idea. We must conclude that, despite appearances, there is no empirical support for the existence of character traits.

Furthermore, it is clear that ordinary thinking about character traits has deplorable results, leading to massive understanding of other people, promoting unnecessary hostility between individuals and groups, distorting discussions of law and public policy, and preventing the implementation of situational changes that could have useful results.

By instituting/injecting transparency initiatives into governmental bodies, we are changing the environment. Not only does that (new) environment make it more likely that bad behavior will be discovered, suppressing that urge in the process, it also taps into our desire to be perceived as good.

Explored further, when an individual comes to the (maybe subconscious) realization that actually doing good is a much better approach to achieving that (public) perception than trying to trick them into it, actual progress just might be within grasping range.


Sabbath and such

My family has a new practice ... started this week ... in which we are avoiding electronic media except in emergencies. As a result, I missed this wonderful post yesterday. Thanks for writing it.

I love how you've made a case for transparency that goes beyond its intuitive appeal.

We all behave differently when people are watching. For example, I've read studies about differences in web-surfing behavior that happen when another person is looking over one's should. Similar studies show that people write differently when their words have a chance of being read by a larger audience. That same logic does and should apply to operating in the public arena.

As I've written in the past, I am an extremist in the transparency department when it comes to government activities. Except for the possible exception of certain criminal investigations, I take the position that every single action that public employees carry out in their official capacities should be completely and instantly visible to anyone who cares to look. I

Great post, Steve. A new angle on transparency that's well worth taking to heart.


I think if we always ask

the question, "How will this improve things?" instead of just "Will this improve things?", we can get a better grip on what the "this" should be. It forces a deeper evaluation, and might uncover flaws in our logic.

"Who watches the watchers?"

Excellent points, scharrison, and James. The government is truly a man-made environment, and you're right to point out that there's no reason why we shouldn't choose to structure it in a way that encourages desirable behavior, rather than just hoping that once in a hundred years we get someone worth his fancy suit elected to an official capacity. Or trying to alter how individual politicians behave via media scandal, criminal investigations, etc.

How far should the idea of enforced transparency go? What measures should be taken, and to whom should they apply?


The Black Sheep


The Black Sheep

If you follow a couple

of general guidelines, such as "any situation where taxpayer money is spent" and/or "any situation where rules/regulations are put into place that affect the broader public", you'll find that nearly every government entity would be of interest, all the way down to local municipalities' departments.

As far as the "what" should be exposed or published: meeting minutes, any (written) correspondence between elected officials and staff (even personnel matters), RFQ's, bids for contracts, etc. Pretty much everything. What we're seeing now is merely a vague shadow of what goes on.

"I concur, doctor."

I can't disagree on any point. Of course, getting something like this to pass a body of elected officials . . . that would be a glorious and unlikely day.


The Black Sheep


The Black Sheep