Doing bad when I think I’m good

A perplexing question in social science research is why people behave in ways inconsistent with their beliefs and their perceptions about themselves. For example, if we know it is wrong to lie, cheat or steal, then why do people lie, cheat or steal? Economists might say people conduct a rational analysis to assess the benefits of lying, cheating or stealing relative to the costs of getting caught or having a guilty conscience and will behave inappropriately when the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Psychologists might look to the internalized norms and values of people and say they will lie, cheat or steal when their internal value systems become corrupted. But what if people maintain a strong internal value system but still lie, cheat or steal? Is it possible for me to behave dishonestly and still consider myself an honest person? The question is not trivial. Consider these variations:

I see myself as a person dedicated to healthy eating and exercise but who routinely (over)indulges in sugary and unhealthy foods.

I see myself as a person who values education and a growing intellect but who routinely watches too much television or plays too many games on a smartphone or tablet.

I see myself as a person who is fair and impartial but who regularly denigrates the statements of persons whose political views differ from mine.

I see myself as a person who treats others with dignity and respect but who often hurls insults at political opponents because its just “politics”.

I see myself as a religious person but who rarely attends church or reads scriptures and prays.

I see myself as a competent and careful blogger but who infrequently adds new posts to his blog or reads and comments on the blog postings of others.

A study published in 2008, entitled The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance, provides a compelling insight here. According to the authors of the study, people have and want to maintain a particular image of themselves, such as being a person of honesty. A problem arises when people face a decision that can produce a short-term gain but require them to act in a way that is contrary to their self-image or self-concept. When people are torn by competing motivations–“gaining from cheating versus maintaining a positive self-concept as honest”–they will solve this dilemma “by finding a balance or equilibrium between the two motivating forces, such that they derive some financial benefit from behaving dishonestly but still maintain their positive self-concept in terms of being honest.” But how? The trick is to define the behavior in a way that still allows them to maintain the desired self-concept. The authors describe this as malleability. The more malleable the situation, the more likely people will behave inappropriately while still maintaining a positive self-concept. Consider this variation of an example provided by the authors: I might be able to justify taking a $1 notebook from my friend, even if I cannot justify stealing $1 from his wallet to buy the notebook myself. The malleability here comes from my defining this action as “borrowing” rather than stealing, or thinking that because I let my friend use something of mine previously, then my taking the notebook is okay because “this is what friends do.” Of course, there is limit to this rationalization. I might be able to rationalize taking the $1 notebook but probably not taking my friend’s $20,000 car. Thus, malleability and limits set the boundaries within which rationalization occurs.

The scholars conducted experiments to see how people behave when given opportunities to cheat and to redefine how they see themselves. The experiments confirmed their expectations. As summarized by the authors, “people who think highly of themselves in terms of honesty make use of various mechanisms that allow them to engage in a limited amount of dishonesty while retaining positive views of themselves. In other words, there is a band of acceptable dishonesty that is limited by internal reward considerations.” In other words, I can lie as long as I can convince myself it is really not lying. If I can do this easily, then good for me. I get my lie and self-worth too. If I cannot do this easily, then I’ll resign myself to being honest.

So, if we want to reduce dishonesty in society, we need to limit the malleability of contexts in which people might lie, cheat or steal. In other words, we need to make it harder for people to rationalize their unethical behavior that allows them to maintain a positive self-concept even though they are doing wrong. In their study, the authors were able to do this by asking the subjects of their experiments to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember. Perhaps this means we should be promoting greater religious observance in society.

Lying is still lying, regardless of what we want to call it. Cheating is still cheating. And stealing is still stealing. All our wrong. We need to call it what it is.

Phew! That was a lot of work creating this post. Time for this healthy exerciser to take a chocolate break.

 

 

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If you’re going to tell me “no”, then at least give me a reason

One of the responsibilities I have as editor of the academic journal Agriculture and Human Values is to invite scholars to evaluate papers submitted for publication. But soliciting reviewers is difficult. It takes time to identify potential reviewers and to extend the review invitation. In 2015, I made 900 invitations to scholars to review papers submitted to the journal. Two thirds of those who were invited agreed to review and most provided excellent reports, which helped me make the difficult decision of accepting or rejecting papers for publication. But one-third of invited reviewers declined to review. I use an online manuscript management system to send an email to reviewers asking them to accept or decline the review request. When an invited reviewer declines, the reviewer is asked to provide a reason. Almost half of those who declined gave no reason for their unwillingness or inability to review the paper.

This afternoon I sent a request to a scholar to review a paper for me. Within minutes the person decline but did not give me a reason. I get really annoyed when a scholar says “no” without giving me a reason. Give me a reason! I’ll take almost any excuse over nothing. For example, sometimes invited reviewers give trivial reasons, as in “I am too busy now.” I can accept that. That is better than offering no reason at all. Giving a reason shows respect. Not giving a reason is what masters do to servants, officers do to conscripted soldiers, and kings do to subjects.

In 1978, a Harvard University professor published the results of an interesting experiment in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the experiment, a person approached adults waiting in a line to make photocopies and asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Not surprisingly, the request to cut in front of others waiting to use the same machine was frequently declined – in this case, 40% of the time. When a meaningful reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” the number of persons refusing the request to cut in line declined to only 6%; thus, most people let the person cut in line. Interestingly, when a trivial reason was given for the request, as in “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” the rate of refusal was almost identical to the case when a meaningful reason was given. This is interesting, because the reason given in the latter case was the same reason that others had for standing in the line. In other words, all that mattered for those waiting in line was that a reason be given for the request that created a burden for them – “even if the reason conveyed no information,” according to the study. Simply stated, people appreciate and will respond to a reason, even if it is a trivial one.

So, if you ask for my help, I’ll probably tell you “no”, but at least I’ll give you a reason.