Height, banks and morality

If you beg for money, you are more likely to have more dropped in your tin cup if you stand at the top of the escalator than at the bottom. If you want a pay raise, have your boss stand in an elevated spot.

These insights come from a curious series studies conducted by Lawrence Sanna of the University of North Carolina, He found a relationship between height and generosity: the higher up, the more generous. Sanna explained in New Scientist magazine, “Experiencing elevated physical height increased the virtuous act of making real charitable contributions.”

I am skeptical of the usefulness or validity of these studies. But they do reflect a truth: height metaphors are embedded in ethical judgments. “Up” is generally associated with good things. For example, a good person is an upstanding citizen and we talk about being principled as taking the moral high ground. By contrast, “down” metaphors, are associated with bad things. When depressed, you feel down; a cheat is underhanded.

According the linguists Lakoff and Johnson, these turns of language are rooted in our biology. When you are awake and well, you stand up. When you are sick or dead, you lay down. When you are up high, you can see further and detect danger better. Visibility and safety are related.

This takes me to the concept of transparency. The financial markets and banks were convoluted when the world economy collapsed, with mortgages shifted from here to there to there to who knew where. No one, it seems, knew who was responsible for what. The public was forced to take Wall Street at its word that all was well. But when there are fortunes to be made, the temptation of deceive oneself, if only unconsciously, and to act unscrupulously is great.

As our economy stumbles towards modest recovery, let’s not forget how we got here in the first place. It wasn’t merely mendacious and dishonest people. It was also an opaque system that operated largely without regulation. Another word for regulation is “oversight.”

Oversight: There’s that metaphor again.


One thought on “Height, banks and morality

  1. Various studies have attempted over the past few centuries to correlate height and criminality. Low stature has been traditionally seen as a “criminological” sign–the shorter you are, the more likely to commit a crime. (In fact, the NBER in 2010 unbelievably published a paper on this).
    To continue with your blog post, as we move towards recovery we must remember that it was those “white” collar criminals who were too “high” above the average, “short” person/criminals, who committed the types of breaches of regulation/ ethical action that led to the crisis. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s