Question

“That’s just how we do things.”

“That’s just the way things are.”

“I don’t see any reason not to do things that way.”

None of these are very compelling explanations for why we should do something. But if most of us were cross-examined about why we do certain things, from our own individual habits all the way up to our societal customs, they’re probably the best we could come up with.

Really, we’re pretty good at doing things without knowing why we do them. We can think critically about our actions, but we usually do so selectively – there are a lot of things we just do because that’s how we do things, and we generally don’t need to ask why.

So how are we so good at accepting the way things are and doing things certain ways because that’s what’s normal? In general, we’re pretty accepting of the fact that we’re accepting of the way things are! We don’t question why we don’t question.

But psychologists do! That’s they’re job.

Recently, a pair of researchers from University of Illinois and New York University ran a series of experiments looking at how people make the leap from “this is how things are” to “this is how things should be.” The resulting paper, “Why Do People Tend to Infer ‘Ought’ From ‘Is’? The Role of Biases in Explanation” was published last month in Psychological Science.

What they found was that starting from a very young age, people tend to explain situations by looking for inherent facts that justify those situations. So when people are told “this is how things are,” they look for intrinsic reasons as to why things are the way they are, and those reasons become value judgments along the lines of “this is how things should be.”

For example, the researchers talked about the tradition of giving roses on Valentine’s Day. This is a pretty arbitrary custom, but we see it as a good thing to do, and it’s probably better for all involved if we don’t think too critically about this practice!

The researchers hypothesized that people tend to rationalize the tradition of giving roses on Valentine’s Day using inherent facts about the situation – for example, by saying that “roses are beautiful.” And the data from their study showed that, indeed, people were biased towards intrinsic instead of extrinsic explanations across a variety of contexts.

Because these explanations using intrinsic facts have a way of becoming positive value judgments like “people should give roses on Valentine’s Day,” this may be a factor in why we so easily accept the way things are and assume that it’s the best way of doing things.

Of course, that’s not to say that being biased towards the way things are is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, you could even argue that things are better if we aren’t always questioning everything. But then again, that might just be your bias for keeping things the way they are talking!

What d’you think of this research? What are some things you or other people accept just because “that’s how things are”? Please share!

Image: FreeImages.com/Sigurd Decroos