Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, conducted a really neat experiment. Subjects were given a standardized test of general knowledge, and were paid a set amount for each answer they got right. Three groups took the same test under slightly different conditions. The control group was not given the opportunity to cheat. A second group had the opportunity, but there was a perceived risk of getting caught. The third group was given the opportunity to cheat with no chance of getting caught.
The experimenters were surprised by the results. In both “cheater” groups, the amount of cheating was virtually equal, and it wasn’t very much — approximately 3 questions out of the 50. Why didn’t the group with the opportunity for cheating with impunity cheat more?
The answer is not clear from this experiment, but it probably has to do with our strong evolutionary drive to maintain a good reputation. In most (if not all) social animals, reputation is a very big deal. Individuals with the best reps reap the most societal rewards. On the flip side, cheating, dishonesty, and defection cause long-term damage. Consider how hard it is for an ex-convict to get a job, even decades after serving the time and being released. Evolution has programmed us with very strong drives to be honest.
A follow up study yielded even more remarkable results. With the same test conditions, the subjects were divided into two groups. That is, in each of two groups, there were three test conditions — control, cheat with risk, cheat with impunity. Both groups were asked to perform a “memory test” before beginning the main test. One group was asked to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember. The other was asked to recall ten books they read in High School.
What do you think happened? Surprisingly, the Ten Commandments group displayed virtually no cheating at all! The High School Book group performed the same as in the first study, with comparable low levels of cheating in both cheat groups.
So… maybe the Christians are onto something, right? Maybe we non-believers have been wrong to demand the removal of the Commandments from court rooms and public buildings. Is there something unique about them after all?
No. There isn’t. In a follow up study, recalling the Ten Commandments was ditched. Instead, the group was asked to sign a slip of paper reading: “I understand that this study falls under the MIT honor system.” The results were statistically identical to the Ten Commandments experiment.
Furthermore, in analyzing the results of the Ten Commandments experiment, it turns out that it didn’t matter a whit whether the students were able to recall all ten, five, or none. And more notably, it didn’t matter whether they remembered the only Commandment that has anything to do with honesty. All that mattered was that they had been primed by thinking about morality.
Oh… I almost forgot something very important. There is no MIT honor system. Interesting, isn’t it?
So what’s the moral of the story? In a nutshell, the Ten Commandments do have a positive effect on people. But not because they’re Christian, or there’s any real authority behind them. Instead, they function because they prime people to behave more morally. Any reminder of a moral obligation will do the same trick. So here’s one area where the critics of the atheist movement are exactly right. We should replace the commandments instead of just taking them down and leaving the walls blank. The Commandments, as I have recently pointed out, are actually contrary to many of our inalienable rights as Americans. But oaths and reminders of morality do work.
Perhaps we nonbelievers need our own set of moral instructions. Maybe something like this would work:
- Sometimes our conscience is wrong. Always use reason as the highest moral authority.
- Strive never to do to another what you would not want done to you.
- Respect the right of others to do as they please so long as it does no real harm to you.
- Treat people of every race, sex, and sexual orientation as equally as possible.
- Do not overlook or tolerate evil.
- There are limited resources on the earth. Live life in moderation.
- Demand proof equal to the importance of a claim.
- In all moral decisions, act with the best of intentions and with honesty.
- Be consistent, trustworthy, and hard working.
- When you fail, own your mistakes and work to become a better person in the future.
What about you, readers? Do you have a personal moral code? Do you find that reminding yourself of your ethics helps you to act better? Do you think I’ve left out anything really important?