Ask Ariely: On Creed Fatigue, Souls for Sale, and Defying Gravitas

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I work for the central organization of a large church, and my job includes dealing with “crooked” priests of one form or another. For now, let’s think only of the embezzlers, of whom there are, sadly, far too many.

This got me thinking about the experiment you and some colleagues ran a few years ago, which showed that levels of cheating plummeted when participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments right before taking a test. As you wrote, “reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.” 

Your own Ten Commandments experiment suggests that a priest who, as a matter of daily or weekly ritual, recites religious teachings should be highly moral. But I see every day that this isn’t so.

What’s going on here? Can repetition cause “creed fatigue”?

—Simon

As you pointed out, our experiments show that people became more honest when we got them to think about the Ten Commandments, swear on the Bible (which, interestingly, worked for atheists too) or even just sign their name first on a document.  But our experiments were a one-shot exercise, and we don’t have data about what would happen if we repeated them over time.

Even so, I would guess that as such actions (including rituals) become routinized, we would stop thinking about their meanings, and their effect on our morality would drop. This is why I recommend that universities not only set up honor codes but have their students write down their own version of that code before writing each exam and paper—thereby minimizing the chances that these could become thoughtless habits.

Such procedures would be hard to implement in a religious setting, of course, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for you or your church. Maybe your role should be to try to give the priests more clear-cut rules, reduce their ability to rationalize their actions and eliminate conflicts of interests.

Still, on a more optimistic note: Have you considered the possibility that these rituals are in fact having a positive effect—and that without them, these individuals would behave far worse?

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Dear Dan,

Out at a bar recently, I met someone who told me that he did not believe in the soul. I immediately asked him if he would sell his to me.  We ended up agreeing on a price of $20. I paid up, and he wrote a note on a napkin giving me his soul.

Now, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I also can’t help but believe that there is an exceedingly small chance that a soul could have an infinite value. So $20 seemed a reasonable hedge. Did I pay too much, or did I get a good deal?

—Carey

Well haggled. Your logic here is reminiscent of what is known as Pascal’s Wager, after the philosopher who figured that if there was even a small probability that God and heaven exist (which means infinite payoff for being good), the smart move is to live your life this as it were true. But you got a good deal here for three other reasons. First, discussing this trade had to have been far more interesting than the usual bar chitchat, so if you value the quality of your time, the $20 was a good investment even if souls turn out not to exist. Second, you now have a great story to reflect on for a long time, which is also worth a lot.  And finally, you are now the proud owner of a soul.  But if all of these reasons don’t convince you, send me the soul, and I’ll pay you back for it.

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Dear Dan,

At what point do people have to “act our age”? At 73, my wife and I still enjoy our sex life, are physically active and dress the way we did when we met more than 30 years ago. But most of our contemporaries dress like old people, act with gravitas and aren’t doing well in the weight department. What to do?

—Aaron

Move to Berkeley.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.