Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What makes us tell the truth?

Fascinating article over at the WSJ entitled, "Why We Lie." The premise is interesting:
We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest. In the age of Bernie Madoff and Mark McGwire, James Frey and John Edwards, we like to believe that most people are virtuous, but a few bad apples spoil the bunch. If this were true, society might easily remedy its problems with cheating and dishonesty. Human-resources departments could screen for cheaters when hiring. Dishonest financial advisers or building contractors could be flagged quickly and shunned. Cheaters in sports and other arenas would be easy to spot before they rose to the tops of their professions.

But that is not how dishonesty works. Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society. [emphasis added]
The article goes on to talk about studies that may indicate how it is we can curb this subtle yet corrosive force in society. The author uses the example of a study in which a group of UCLA students were asked to complete a mental exercise, essentially consisting of a series of simple calculations, and then report on how well they did (after their papers were shredded). The group was divided into two sets: one set was asked to recall the Ten Commandments before completing the assignment, while the other was asked to recall something rather trivial, like ten books they read in high school. Turns out the second set of students had slightly inflated scores relative to the first. Apparently just recalling certain rules caused people to act more scrupulously. The experiment even worked on self-avowed atheists. In fact, it even worked with the Ten Commandments replaced by the school's honor code.

To the author, this suggests a convenient and effective way to curb lying in a society. For instance, in one experiment with insurance claims, the signature line, with the words, "I promise that the information I am providing is true," was moved from the bottom of the form to the top. This significantly decreased the values of the claims, suggesting that people were less inclined to cheat when reminded from the beginning that they were under oath.

But aside from methods of manipulation, what insight into the nature of morality might we derive from this? It's interesting to speculate on the role that words play in shaping morality. Statements such as the Ten Commandments or a school honor code do more than merely convey information; they also act as a link between people and some abstract authority watching over them. It's one thing for a person to know that lying is wrong. It is another for that person to hear (or read) that lying is wrong. Even when the words appear on a form, they have an impact on us.

Put in another way, words are more than just a medium through which two parties are able to communicate their own desires, goals, and beliefs. They also seem to have some mysterious power over us to help us conform to a collective wisdom tradition. It is important that the words themselves have power to do this. Otherwise we would have to depend on some other source of authority, presumably not nearly so easily widespread as words. This should give us a clue as to how we ever became capable of functioning in a society which is so widely extended, in terms of both physical space and numbers of people.

All of this suggests that perhaps all societies ought to learn to imitate some version of the words of Moses:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. [Deut. 6:6-9]
It would appear our very survival depends on it.

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