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human nature

Honesty and Priming

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:

  1. Sometimes our conscience is wrong.  Always use reason as the highest moral authority.
  2. Strive never to do to another what you would not want done to you.
  3. Respect the right of others to do as they please so long as it does no real harm to you.
  4. Treat people of every race, sex, and sexual orientation as equally as possible.
  5. Do not overlook or tolerate evil.
  6. There are limited resources on the earth.  Live life in moderation.
  7. Demand proof equal to the importance of a claim.
  8. In all moral decisions, act with the best of intentions and with honesty.
  9. Be consistent, trustworthy, and hard working.
  10. 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?



5 thoughts on “Honesty and Priming

  1. I just finished reading predictibally irrational this week and thought similar things when I read about that study.

    Here’s two similar ones where instead of an honor code, they used secular primes such as police and judge.

    Posted by cptpineapple | August 21, 2010, 7:51 pm
  2. An important question, given theframe of Atheism:
    How do you define morality and good/evil if there is no God? Not arguing theology, merely asking the SOURCE of your decision of what is evil, per #5. Also, the answer to that influences #8, as your definition of Evil will need to then be applied to what is or is not Moral.

    Example: Thugs were followers of Kali (The Destroyer), and they worshipped her through human sacrifice. The method of execution was strangulation, as no blood could be spilled – blood being a symbol of life, I.E. a start instead of an end (Destroyer).
    As I understand, victims were supposed to be willing.

    Enter the British into India, the Thuggees are wiped out for their Evil worship practices of a heathen deity.

    One morality: Willing human sacrifices to a goddess.
    Morality 2: Christian, mostly Protestant, force colonizes the area; Morality #1 is now Evil due to the moral framework of #2. #2 draws from the comandments, “Though shalt not kill,” even though it is drawn from a religion where animal sacrifice was common, and where the faith itself is BASED on a human sacrifice.

    Trying to leave aside the colonial aspects of the example: how does one, without acknowledging some supreme deity, decide what is “right” or “good” without falling to a selfish level of “Right FOR ME” or “Good FOR ME”?

    Posted by steyraug96 | August 30, 2010, 2:35 pm
  3. How do you define morality and good/evil if there is no God? Not arguing theology, merely asking the SOURCE of your decision of what is evil, per #5.

    Morality is a system of value judgment applied to interpersonal interaction. Good/evil are broad terms we use to describe these values. They are not qualities like “green” or “solid.” Rather, they are interpretations of the meanings of actions as well as consequences. Furthermore, they are not always mutually exclusive, nor are they binary. A thing can be good from one perspective and evil from another, and some things are “more good” or “more evil” than others.

    For example, imagine a situation where a man with a gun had me and my two daughters held captive with no hope of escape. He told me that I had a choice: Either I choose one of my daughters to kill with my bare hands, or he would kill both of my daughters. It’s a pretty horrible situation, isn’t it? We have a very strong aversion to killing our children — they’re our genetic legacy, and we love them. But given the choice, as hard as it might be, I could justify killing one daughter. Better that one should live than both should die. Is it a good thing that I’m doing? Certainly not. But it’s better to save one life than not save one life.

    “Evil” is actually a poor word, but it’s used so pervasively that I’ve chosen to adopt it into my list. For my purposes, and those of most naturalist moral philosophies, evil is used to describe an act whose consequences for others are so overwhelmingly negative that no reasonable evaluation can justify it as more good than bad.

    Trying to leave aside the colonial aspects of the example: how does one, without acknowledging some supreme deity, decide what is “right” or “good” without falling to a selfish level of “Right FOR ME” or “Good FOR ME”?

    At some level, we always have to reference our own feelings of morality. That is, when we look at any practice, we do have a judgment about its moral value. If we take Kohlberg’s scale of moral development as a convenient example (we could certainly use others, but his is very concise and functional) we can see that the way to incorporate other perspectives is to remove ourselves as much as possible and try to understand the other parties’ motives, actions, and consequences. We also try to examine their beliefs to see if they could do the same thing. In other words, was the Thugs’ practice of human sacrifice respectful of the rights of others to make their own moral determinations? Were the sacrifices truly willing, and did they or their families gain something sufficient to make up for the loss of life? Were the thugs willing to practice their sacrifices while accepting other cultural practices and not trying to impose their own?

    We can then turn things around and ask the same thing of the colonials. What were the colonials gaining by their takeover of India, and did those gains come with concurrent sacrifices that made the lives of the Indians?

    On balance, I think we have to conclude that both acts were morally suspect. The British invasion of India was primarily self-serving, and the lives of Indians were held as lower than those of the British. The Thugs were not wiped out as a way to improve life for the human sacrifices, but rather as an excuse to further colonial interests. While it may be true that fewer people were sacrificed after British occupation, I find it difficult to say that things were objectively better for Indians on the whole. On the other hand, British colonial assets and trade were enhanced significantly. On balance, probably not fair.

    And that is ultimately one of the biggest foundations of our moral instinct — fairness. Evolution has programmed us with a deep seated and persistent desire to be treated fairly. What constitutes fairness is context dependent, and largely based on the relative value of various goods, services, and actions. But once value has been established, evaluation of fairness is based on a pretty consistent algorithm.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 30, 2010, 7:11 pm


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