A more care-less year

Can caring be a bad thing?

Caring is a strong motive for quite a big chunk of our behaviour. If we care about something (or somebody), it means we are willing to put energy into it, effort, time and cost. It often acts as an inherent basis for action, beyond material incentives. But is caring an unconditional force for good?

It certainly has a good reputation. Many of us look up to people in a ‘caring profession’, who help others, like nurses, school-teachers, or those who work with vulnerable people. Similarly, folk who volunteer for to help the poor or clean up the environment (because they care) tend to get respect in society. And of course it is hard to imagine how that society could a function at all if we did not care for our children, siblings, (grand)parents, friends, neighbours or colleagues.

If caring is such a good thing, can there be too much of it? We want to protect the object of our caring from harm, or to make things better for it. If the effort we put in with that intention delivers the desired effect, we are rewarded for our input, we experience a positive emotion, and all is fine. Seemingly, even when we do things just because we care, we still remain economic beings, and we need the costs to balance the benefits. But what if we care too much, and the implicit goals that follow are too big for us, or simple unattainable?

Could she be caring too much for her patients? (image: National Museum of Health and Medicine) CC BY)

No individual can single-handedly end hunger and poverty, deliver world peace, or fix the IT system at work. We have to bring what we want to achieve, and hence how much we care, in line with what we can do in practice. Thankfully, such major mismatches are not a widespread problem: most people are pretty good at using how much they care, just like medication, it in the right doses to boost or sustain motivation. If it does happen — particularly at work — it’s worth bearing in mind one of the old adages of Change Management: never work harder than your change sponsor. More generally, don’t put in more effort than the person with overall responsibility, however much you care. Without their active engagement, there’s no way we will be able to achieve whatever the overall goal is. Sure, it won’t get done and we may end up frustrated, but at least we won’t end up burning ourself out.

Sometimes we just say that we care too much (usually accompanied with an exasperated sigh). This is not quite the same as what happens when our aspirations are too big for our capacity. Instead, it is what can happen when what we see as our reward is not commensurate with the effort we feel we are devoting. Typically, this involves another person by whom we are trying to do good, but who doesn’t appreciate our concern. Maybe that person is an ungrateful so-and-so, and if we do not get enough intrinsic compensation for our energy, perhaps it’s time to trim it down a little and focus our attention on more deserving causes.

But maybe the reason they don’t heap gratitude on us is that we are actually not helping them, or at least not in the way they need. We are, that goes without saying, not in the least a control freak, but perhaps we are acting more out of a desire to see them do what we think is best or, heaven forfend, to direct this other person’s life for them (in their interest of course). Or perhaps we are being an interfering busybody after all. So, whenever we hear ourselves say (out loud or under our breath) that we care too much, it may be time to wonder what is our true motive. Is it really because we care? Or are we sneaking in something else?

The more serious situations where caring too much can derail us and work against our own interest probably lie elsewhere, though. Caring about something or someone means we are prepared to make sacrifices to help and protect them: if necessary, we happily give up our time, energy or money to do so. But is that all we sacrifice? Society may judge us leniently if we sacrifice the principle that we should not harm other people, when one of these other people is threatening to kill a child of ours and we act to protect it. But might we perhaps be tempted to sacrifice our own sense of justice, in order to keep the same child out of jail, for example by providing a false alibi, or failing to report vital information to the police? If our best friend told us she had hit their neighbour’s car, but that she had driven off without notifying them, would we care so much about our friendship that we would not tell the neighbour? These are pretty tough questions — and that is because we care.

A little more innocent (but no less questionable) is the situation where we care so much about a particular belief or conviction, that we try to protect it from the truth. That can be exhibited through confirmation bias: when we believe something — and in particular if we want that belief to be true — we tend to seek out information that confirms and strengthens that belief, rather than information that could contradict it.

If you need this kind of fortress to protect your idea from the truth, you may be caring too much (image: SBA73 CC BY)

You may have come across the ‘2, 4, 8’ game, a wonderful illustration of how much we appear to do so. If so, feel free to skip this paragraph. Still here? Right, it goes something like this: there is a rule that the sequence of numbers ‘2, 4, 8’ obeys. You have to guess that rule by suggesting other sequences of three numbers, and you will learn whether or not they obey the rule. Many people start with the assumption that the rule is: the second and the third number are double the preceding one. They then proceed to give a sequence for which this assumption is true (e.g. ‘5, 10, 20’), and learn that it does indeed obey the rule they’re looking for, but that their assumption is incorrect. This video shows how people continue to look for confirmation rather than for disconfirmation (and gives the solution — if you want to play yourself, here is an online simulation).

When we care profoundly about a particular idea, belief or hypothesis, this can begin to feel as if it is part of our identity, part of us almost — like our children. And our instinct to protect it means we overlook, or dismiss evidence that contradicts it. We cast doubt over the sources of insights that refute it. And ultimately we end up caring more about this, than about the truth. Is that a good thing? Another tough question…

Caring is deep in our nature, and is behind a lot of our decisions and behaviour. But it’s easy to get carried away with it so we lose our sense of balance. Keep on caring, but care just enough, and be careful (!) what you sacrifice. May the coming year, whenever you are verging towards caring too much in whichever way, be a bit more care-less.

Happy 2019!

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on January 4, 2019.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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