Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Cheating and Consumerism: Thou Shalt not Steal Money, but other things are OK

Cheating is OK, provided that it doesn’t directly involve money, at least one of our friends is doing it, and we can still look in the mirror and feel good about ourselves. Also, whether we believe in God or not, cheating is even more acceptable if we can successfully keep the 10 commandments from entering our minds.
These are a few of the conclusions Dan Ariely’s team made from their experiments on the subject of cheating, but just in case my paraphrasing has distorted them slightly I’ll now be a little more specific
The experiments involved measuring the tendency of people to cheat in a test consisting of 20 maths questions that were simple enough that everybody would be expected to be capable of solving them. The difficulty was that the time limit wasn’t enough to complete them all. At the end of the test, each person went to the examiner, reported how many questions they’d answered correctly, and received a dollar for every correct answer. This test was used as a method to explore people’s tendency to cheat and how this varied with the external conditions.
Some unexpected patterns emerged. For example: it was found that a lot of people cheated a little rather than there being a few ‘bad apples’ that cheated a lot, and, surprisingly, the likelihood of getting caught cheating seemed to have no effect upon people’s tendency to cheat.
This led the researchers to ask themselves: ’If having more chance of getting away with cheating doesn’t increase people’s inclination to cheat, then what does?’ They then dug a little deeper and made some quite strange discoveries.
When a group were asked to attempt to recite the 10 commandments prior to the test they stopped cheating completely, even the self-proclaimed atheists. When actors placed within other groups clearly and publicly cheated in the tests ‒and got away it‒ the cheating in the rest of the group increased when the actor was wearing a jumper from their university, but decreased dramatically when the actor was displaying the logo of a local, rival university. Finally, when people claimed one token per correct answer from the experimenter, and then walked just 12 feet to collect a dollar for each token at another desk, cheating in the group doubled.
In his lecture, Dan Ariely points out the worrying implications of this research for the current form stock market. Traders generally don’t deal with money directly but rather with stock options or derivatives, and, if they all cheat just a little then the boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable may slide, the consequences of which can be catastrophic. Additionally, it’s doubtful that they’re asked to recite the 10 commandments on their way into Wall Street.
But the results of this research are also applicable to other areas of society, as they reveal how easily and frequently we let our morals slide. When they’re applied to consumer culture, the implications are particularly disturbing.
Firstly, the fact that we can use the behaviour of other people in our ‘group’ as an excuse for loosening our morals is clearly a recipe for disaster when it comes to unethical consumption which is so widespread. Furthermore, as the most dedicated ethical consumers are often in groups quite detached from mainstream society, their ability to influence the rest of the population may be limited.
Another obvious point is that if being only one stage removed from money ‒and just 12 feet removed from our cheating‒ allows us to slacken our morals, then what hope do we have of being ethical with our consumption in globalised markets? Here we’re confronted with many complex stages of separation as well as the vast physical distances involved. Consequently, connecting the impacts of our food, clothes and the other ‘necessities’ of the western lifestyle such as electronics, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics can be utterly baffling even for those dedicated to understanding it.
Additionally, there may be a reverse consequence of our tendency to allow ‘pure’ money to strongly moderate our morals: we’re likely to gain considerable moral satisfaction from any monetary charitable donations we make, while our perception of our ‘taking’ in the form of consumer goods (effectively ‘tokens’) may seem far less significant to us. Quite worryingly, considering my last post, this may well further increase our ability to ‘morally self-license’ any of our suspiciously-unethical consuming.
So, given that we look set to remain detached from the impacts of our lifestyles for the foreseeable future, how can we best uphold our personal moral integrity when spending?
Well, the answer to this is likely to depend upon why just one step of separation from money is enough to allow people to cheat more. Do we give ourselves more credit in a cognitive or a moral sense? In other words, does this separation really make it so much harder for us to connect events and recognise the morals of our behaviour? Or does it give our conscience an ‘escape route’ that we can purposely take to sidestep any guilt we may otherwise feel and retain a positive perception of ourselves?
Reading Dan Ariely’s work he seems to suggest the latter. Unfortunately, this puts us in quite a desperate situation when confronting the task of eliminating goods with damaging and exploitative impacts from the market. It appears that even if we can become fully aware of the negative impacts of the things we buy, we’ll always still have some degree of separation which we can use to help evade any significant feelings of guilt.
If we really want to help to improve the world through our personal, day to day behaviour, it looks like we must strive to evaluate our own behaviour mindfully, and try hard not to let our moral judgement be swayed by the behaviour of others, or deceived by the self-interested parts of ourselves. But how this can be achieved on a large-scale is a difficult question.

Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely, The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance

1 comment:

Energy Mix said...

Excellent post and a fascinating study.

I think the point about giving ourselves an 'escape route to sidestep our guilt' is an interesting one. It seems to imply that on some level we really want to engage in selfish/damaging behaviours and we are constantly seeking an excuse, this would indeed be a desperate situation.

he other side of the coin is that as humans we are capable of the most damaging as well as the most altruistic behaviours. The one which flourishes could be more related to our day-to-day influences, interactions and the habits we form. If so, perhaps this gives us a means of modifying behaviours on a large-scale.