Just Saying

Think we're too nice to shove anyone? Think again

You and I would never have shoved that uncle over that "choped" table in the Toa Payoh hawker centre.

We are not like the guy who seemed to push him from behind, while his companion allegedly swore at him from the front.

We are nice people.

Over our dead bodies.

Certain things are black and white, right?

Well, here's a drop of grey: Research shows that regardless of our confidence, we are not as nice as we think we are. The British media reported recently that a study carried out for an airline found a whopping 98 per cent of people consider themselves to be among the nicest 50 per cent of the population.

That does not compute.

The Guardian reported that the disconnect popped up when psychology professor Jonathan Freeman from Goldsmiths, University of London, asked participants to rate their own niceness. He then asked them to respond to questions (for example, do you give directions to strangers; donate blood) designed to establish objective agreeability.

Prof Freeman said: "More than half of participants who rated themselves as the second-highest level of nice scored below the sample average on agreeableness - so people think they're nicer than they really may be."

But, no, we are nice. It is other people's fault: Dealing with rude people can make 73 per cent of participants stop being nice.

Someone once told me that I looked like sar cham bak (there were gasps from the people around me then, which I understood later only when I found out the phrase was Hokkien for "three-layer pork"). It was the person's fault that I stopped being nice. Like, forever.

But, no, no, we are nice. It is bad things happening to nice people: Losing an important possession, such as a wallet, makes 59 per cent of people also lose their cool.

But, no, no, no, we are nice. It was the booze that made Mr Gary Lim say bad things about a cabby.

The boss of The Yang's Traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice incurred the wrath of netizens recently when a video of him blocking a taxi driver's way and telling him that he "cannot do big things" as he is a cabby went viral.

"Look, I have so much money, I can't control myself," Mr Lim said in Mandarin, and began counting money - including $1,000 notes - in front of him.

The boss later offered 200 packets of chicken rice to taxi drivers to make amends, reported Shin Min Daily News. On April 29, Mr Lim said to the cabby in Mandarin: "I want to apologise. I drank too much and said some senseless things."

In vino veritas (in wine, truth).

While we are right to be outraged at the bad things he said, how is it that we are not as outraged at our own bad thoughts? Such as: "That person is (insert derogatory word) because she or he is (insert race/gender/age/nationality)." We've had them, some of us say them out loud during dinners, just not while being recorded by a smartphone camera.

Maybe doing this could help us be as nice as we think we are: Before we blurt out hurtful words, visualise them playing out in viral videos we have to apologise for.

Hold that thought as I stir more grey into this nice black-and-white world of ours: Would we physically hurt someone if we won't get arrested for doing so?

During a noted 1970s work by performance artist Marina Abramovic, she placed objects near herself and told the audience they could use them in any way on her as she stood passively. The items included olive oil and roses, as well as potentially dangerous things. The Los Angeles Times said audience members cut off her clothing. The Washington Post said a man picked up a knife and placed it between her legs. Another cut her with a razor blade. A third man took the loaded gun she had left there and pushed it near her temple. She walked away hours afterwards, dripping with blood and in tears.

In Marina veritas?

But, no, no, no, no, they were nice art gallery visitors. It was the artist who provoked the people into doing bad stuff, right?

We would never have stripped and cut her.

Hold that visual in your head as I stir a bit of blood red into our grey world: Would we torture and kill people if someone with power told us to do so?

In the 1960s, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram's electric-shock studies showed that ordinary people, under the direction of an authority figure, would obey just about any order they were given, even to torture.

The New York Times reported that more than 60 per cent of the volunteers, from all walks of life, administered what they thought were painful shocks to a purported victim - actually a trained actor - believing the test to be part of a study on learning and memory. They did so even when they heard shouts of pain from the victim. The volunteers were prompted by an experimenter in a white lab coat who said: "The experiment requires that you continue."

The Atlantic said: "Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor's urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition - and then fell alarmingly silent."

The magazine noted: "It's a phenomenon that's been used to explain atrocities from the Holocaust to the Vietnam War's My Lai massacre to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib."

But, no, no, no, no, no, they were nice, obedient volunteers. It was the experiment which tricked them into doing it, right?

We would never have tortured people.

Instead of clinging to the idea that we are nice people, it might be wise to accept that, while we are sugar and spice, we are also all things vice.

Being aware of our potential to do bad - it could have been us delivering electric shocks to a man, or cutting an artist, or belittling a cabby, or shoving an uncle in a hawker centre - could be the first step to being as nice as we think we are.

I am aware that I have the potential to drunkenly count $2 notes in front of that person who described me in a not-so-nice way while belittling him. But I have, instead, grunted nice things to him and meant it, plus I have not given him any electric shocks. That's fairly decent for someone who is forever not nice.

There's hope.

We don't have to be completely good to do something good.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'Think we're too nice to shove anyone? Think again'. Print Edition | Subscribe