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Discuss The Honest Truth with me on Shindig: August 28th at 6 pm

Aug 20

I’m excited to announce my first foray into interactive online discussion with readers. On Tuesday August 28 at 6 pm you can join me in a discussion of The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, and of course, whatever else comes up. Sign up here.

Ask Ariely: On Parking, Paying, and Putting

Aug 18

Here’s my column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to askariely@wsj.com

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

What should I do about parking? I have trouble deciding whether I should go for a paid parking lot straight away or drive around in the hope of finding free parking—but at the risk of wasting time.

—Cheri

This is a question about the value of your time. You need to figure out how much money an hour of fun out of the house is worth to you and compare that cost with the time it takes to find a parking spot. For example, if an hour out of the house is worth $25 to you, and searching for parking takes 30 minutes on average, then any amount less than $12.50 that the parking lot charges you is worth it. As the number of people in your car rises, the value of parking quickly also rises because the waste of time and reduction of value accumulate across all the people in your group.

Another computational approach is to compare the misery you feel from paying for parking with the misery you feel while seeking a spot. If the misery from payment isn’t as great as the unhappiness from your wasted time, you should go for the parking lot. But if you do this, you shouldn’t ignore the potential misery you would feel if you paid for parking and then found a free spot just outside your destination. Personally, the thought of time wasted is so unbearable to me that I usually opt for paid parking.

Yet another approach is to put all the money that you intend to spend on going out in an envelope in advance. As you’re on the way to the restaurant or movie theater, decide whether that money would be better spent on parking or other goods. Is it worth it to forgo that extra-large popcorn if paying for parking will get you to the theater on time? That makes the comparison clearer between what you get (quick parking and more time out) and what you give up.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

When going to dinner with friends, what is the best way to split the bill?

—William

There are basically three ways to split the bill. The first is for everyone to pay for what they’ve had, which in my experience ends the meal on a particularly low point. Every person has to become an accountant. Given the importance of endings in how we frame our memories of experiences, this is a particularly bad approach. Rather than remembering how delicious the crème brûlée was, you may be more likely to remember that Suzie ate most of it even though you paid for half.

The second approach is to share the bill equally, which works well when people eat (more or less) the same amount.

The third approach, my favorite, is to have one person pay for everyone and to alternate the designated payer with each meal. If you go out to eat with a group relatively regularly, it winds up being a much better solution. Why? (A) Getting a free meal is a special feeling. (B) The person paying for everyone does not suffer as much as his or her friends would if they paid individually. And (C) the person buying may even benefit from the joy of giving.

Let’s take the example of two friends, Jaden and Luca, who are going out to their favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. If they were to divide the cost of the meal evenly, each would feel, say, 10 units of misery. But if Jaden pays, Luca would have zero units of misery and the joy of a free meal. Because of diminishing sensitivity as the amount of money paid increases, Jaden would suffer fewer than 20 units of misery—maybe 15 units. On top of that, he might even get a boost in happiness from getting to buy his dear friend a meal.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I play in a weekly nine-hole golf league. There’s one individual who constantly talks on his cellphone, moves around while others are putting and mostly ignores the courtesies of golf. He’s been asked to stop this behavior but continues with a bully attitude. How do I handle it?

—Wally K.

Though you might be tempted to rip the phone from his hands, throw it on the ground and bash it with your 9-iron, I would suggest another solution.

You could implement a new rule, whereby everyone else playing with you earns a mulligan (a “do over” shot) each time the bully talks on the phone. Getting constant negative feedback (in addition to giving everyone a performance boost) would probably whip him into shape. Just be sure to take the mulligans consistently, every time he’s on the phone, so that his behavior is reliably punished and the message sticks.

See the original article here.

Understanding Ego Depletion

Aug 15

From your own experience, are you more likely to finish half a pizza by yourself on a) Friday night after a long work week or b) Sunday evening after a restful weekend? The answer that most people will give, of course, is “a.” And in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s on stressful days that many of us give in to temptation and choose unhealthy options. The connection between exhaustion and the consumption of junk food is not just a figment of your imagination.

And it is the reason why so many diets bite it in the midst of stressful situations, and why many resolutions derail in times of crisis.

How do we avoid breaking under stress? There are six simple rules.

1) Acknowledge the tension, don’t ignore it.

Usually in these situations, there’s an internal dialogue (albeit one of varying length) that goes something like this:

“I’m starving! I should go home and make a salad and finish off that leftover grilled chicken.”

“But it’s been such a long day. I don’t feel like cooking.” [Walks by popular spot for Chinese takeout] “Plus, beef lo mein sounds amazing right now.”

“Yes, yes it does, but you really need to finish those vegetables before they go bad, plus, they’ll be good with some dijon vinaigrette!”

“Not as good as those delicious noodles with all that tender beef.”

“Hello, remember the no carbs resolution? And the eat vegetables every day one, too? You’ve been doing so well!”

“Exactly, I’ve been so good! I can have this one treat…”

And so the battle is lost. This is the push-pull relationship between reason (eat well!) and impulse (eat that right now!). And here’s the reason we make bad decisions: we use our self-control every time we force ourselves to make the good, reasonable decision, and that self-control, like other human capacities, is limited.

2) Call it what it is: ego-depletion.

Eventually, when we’ve said “no” to enough yummy food, drinks, potential purchases, and forced ourselves to do enough unwanted chores, we find ourselves in a state that Roy Baumeister calls ego-depletion, where we don’t have any more energy to make good decisions. So–back to our earlier question–when you contemplate your Friday versus Sunday night selves, which one is more depleted? Obviously, the former.

You may call this condition by other names (stressed, exhausted, worn out, etc.) but depletion is the psychological sum of these feelings, of all the decisions you made that led to that moment. The decision to get up early instead of sleeping in, the decision to skip pastries every day on the way to work, the decision to stay at the office late to finish a project instead of leaving it for the next day (even though the boss was gone!), the decision not to skip the gym on the way home, and so on, and so forth. Because when you think about it, you’re not actually too tired to choose something healthy for dinner (after all, you can just as easily order soup and sautéed greens instead of beef lo mein and an order of fried gyoza), you’re simply out of will power to make that decision.

3) Understand ego-depletion.

Enter Baba Shiv (a professor at Stanford University) and Sasha Fedorikhin (a professor at Indiana University) who examined the idea that people yield to temptation more readily when the part of the brain responsible for deliberative thinking has its figurative hands full.

In this seminal experiment, a group of participants gathered in a room and were told that they would be given a number to remember, and which they were to repeat to another experimenter in a room down the hall. Easy enough, right? Well, the ease of the task actually depended on which of the two experimental groups you were in. You see, people in group 1 were given a two-digit number to remember. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that the number is 62. People in group two, however, were given a seven-digit number to remember, 3074581. Got that memorized? Okay!

Now here’s the twist: half way to the second room, a young lady was waiting by a table upon which sat a bowl of colorful fresh fruit and slices of fudgy chocolate cake. She asked each participant to choose which snack they would like after completing their task in the next room, and gave them a small ticket corresponding to their choice. As Baba and Sasha suspected, people laboring under the strain of remembering 3074581 chose chocolate cake far more often than those who had only 62 to recall. As it turned out, those managing greater cognitive strain were less able to overturn their instinctive desires.


(Photo: PetitPlat)

This simple experiment doesn’t really show how ego-depletion works, but it does demonstrate that even a simple cognitive load can alter decisions that could potentially have an effect on our lives and health. So consider how much greater the impact of days and days of difficult decisions and greater cognitive loads would be.

4) Include and consider the moral implications.

Depletion doesn’t only affect our ability to make good decisions, it also makes it harder for us to make honest ones. In one experiment that tested the relationship between depletion and honesty, my colleagues and I split participants into two groups, and had them complete something called a Stroop task, which is a simple task requiring only that the participant name aloud the color of the ink a word (which is itself a color) is written in. The task, however, has two forms: in the first, the color of the ink matches the word, called the “congruent” condition, in the second, the color of the ink differs from the word, called the “incongruent” condition. Go ahead and try both tasks yourself…

The congruent condition: color matches word.

The incongruent condition: color conflicts with word.

As you no doubt observed, naming the color in the incongruent version is far more difficult than in the congruent. Each time you repressed the word that popped instantly into your mind (the word itself) and forced yourself to name the color of the ink instead, you became slightly more depleted as a result of that repression.

As for the participants in our experiment, this was only the beginning. After they finished whichever task they were assigned to, we first offered them the opportunity to cheat. Participants were asked to take a short quiz on the history of Florida State University (where the experiment took place), for which they would be paid for the number of correct answers. They were asked to circle their answers on a sheet of paper, then transfer those answers to a bubble sheet. However, when participants sat down with the experimenter, they discovered she had run into a problem. “I’m sorry,” the experimenter would say with exasperation, “I’m almost out of bubble sheets! I only have one unmarked one left, and one that has the answers already marked.” She explained to participants that she did her best to erase the marks but that they’re still slightly visible. Annoyed with herself, she admits that she had hoped to give one more test today after that one, then asks a question: “Since you are the first of the last two participants of the day, you can choose which form you would like to use: the clean one or the premarked one.”

So what do you think participants did? Did they reason with themselves that they’d help the experimenter out and take the premarked sheet, and be fastidious about recording their accidents accurately? Or did they realize that this would tempt them to cheat, and leave the premarked sheet alone? Well, the answer largely depended on which Stroop task they had done: those who had struggled through the incongruent version chose the premarked sheet far more often than the unmarked. What this means is that depletion can cause us to put ourselves into compromising positions in the first place.

And what about the people, in either condition, who chose the premarked sheet? Once again, those who were depleted by the first task, once in a position to cheat, did so far more often than those who breezed through the congruent version of the task.

What this means is that when we become depleted, we’re not only more apt to make bad and/or dishonest choices, we’re also more likely to allow ourselves to be tempted to make them in the first place. Talk about double jeopardy.

5) Evade ego-depletion.

There’s a saying that nothing good happens after midnight, and arguably, depletion is behind this bit of folk wisdom. Unless you work the third shift, if you’re up after midnight it’s probably been a pretty long day for you, and at that point, you’re more likely to make sub-optimal decisions, as we’ve learned.

So how can we escape depletion?

A friend of mine named Dan Silverman once suggested an interesting approach during our time together at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which is a delightful place for researchers to take a year off to think, plan, and eat very well. Every day, after a rich lunch, we were plied with nigh-irresistible desserts: cheesecake, chocolate tortes, profiteroles, beignets—you name it. It was difficult for all of us, but especially for poor Dan, who was forever at the mercy of his sweet tooth.

It was daily dilemma for my friend. Dan, who was an economist with high cholesterol, wanted dessert. But he also understood that eating dessert every day was not a good decision. He contemplated this problem (along with his other academic interests), and concluded that when faced with temptation, a wise person should occasionally succumb. After all, by doing so, said person can keep him- or herself from becoming overly depleted, which will provide strength for whatever unexpected temptations lie in wait. Dan decided that giving in to daily dessert would be his best defense against being caught unawares by temptation and weakness down the road.

In all seriousness though, we’ve all heard time and time again that if you restrict your diet too much, you’ll likely to go overboard and binge at some point. Well, it’s true. A crucial aspect of managing depletion and making good decisions is having ways to release stress and reset, and to plan for certain indulgences. In fact, I think one reason the Slow-Carb Diet seems to be so effective is because it advises dieters to take a day off (also called a “cheat” day–see item 4 above), which allows them to avoid becoming so deprived that they give up entirely. The key here is planning the indulgence rather than waiting until you have absolutely nothing left in the tank. It’s in the latter moments of desperation that you throw yourself on the couch with the whole pint of ice cream, not even making a pretense of portion control, and go to town while watching your favorite tv show.

Regardless of the indulgence, whether it’s a new pair of shoes, some “me time” where you turn off your phone, an ice cream sundae, or a night out—plan it ahead. While I don’t recommend daily dessert, this kind of release might help you face down challenges to your will power later.

6) Know Thyself.


(Image: AnEpicDay)

The reality of modern life is that we can’t always avoid depletion. But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless against it. Many people probably remember the G.I. Joe cartoon catch phrase: “Knowing is half the battle.” While this served in the context of PSAs of various stripes, it can help us here as well. Simply knowing you can become depleted, and moreover, knowing the kinds of decisions you might make as a result, makes you far better equipped to handle difficult situations when and as they arise.

This blog originally appeared on Tim Ferriss’ blog, here.

Aug 28th at 6 PM EST

Aug 10

On Aug 28th at 6 PM EST I will try a new tool for online discussions

 

So — if you want to chat about dishonesty and have time, join me:

 

http://www.eventbrite.com/event/3810984758

Cheating in Online Courses

Aug 10

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that students cheat more in online than in face-to-face classes. The article tells the story of Bob Smith (not his real name, obviously) who was a student in an online science course.  Bob logged in once a week for half an hour in order to take a quiz. He didn’t read a word of his textbook, didn’t participate in discussions, and still got an A. Bob pulled this off, he explained, with the help of a collaborative cheating effort. Interestingly, Bob is enrolled at a public university in the U.S., and claims to work diligently in all his other (classroom) courses. He doesn’t cheat in those courses, he explains, but with a busy work and school schedule, the easy A is too tempting to pass up.

Bob’s online cheating methods deserve some attention. He is representative of a population of students that have striven to keep up with their instructor’s efforts to prevent cheating online. The tests were designed in a way that made cheating more difficult, including limited time to take the test, and randomized questions from a large test bank (so that no two students took the exact same test).

But the design of the test had two potential flaws: first, students were informed in real time whether their answers were right or wrong; second, they could take the test anytime they wanted. Bob and several friends devised a system to exploit these weaknesses. They took the test one at a time, and posted the questions together with the correct answers in a shared Google document as they went. None of them studied, so the first one or two students often bombed the test, but students who took the test later did quite well.

When we hear such stories of online cheating, the reasons for this behavior seems rather simple: It doesn’t take a criminal mastermind to come up with ways to cheat on a test when there’s no supervision and the entire Internet is at hand. Gone are the quaint days of minutely lettered cheat sheets, formulas written on the underside of baseball cap bills, sweat-smeared key words on students’ palms. Now it’s just a student sitting alone at home, looking up answers online and simply filling them in.

While we can probably all agree that cheating in online courses is easier to pull off than in a physical classroom, I suspect that this simple intuition is far from the whole story, and that e-cheating is more than just a increased ease of getting away with it.

When my colleagues and I have examined the effects of being caught on dishonesty, we found that by and large changing the probability of being caught doesn’t really alter the level of dishonesty. In one of our experiments we asked two Master’s students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev named Eynav, who is blind, and Tali, who has normal sight, to take a cab back and fourth between the train station and the university twenty times. We chose this route for a particular reason: if the driver activates the meter, the fare comes out to around $7 (25 NIS). However, there is a customary rate on this route that costs around $5.50 (20 NIS) if the meter is not activated. Both Eynav and Tali asked to have the meter activated every time they caught a cab, regardless of whether the drivers informed them of the cheaper customary rate. At the end of the ride, the women would pay the fare, wait a few minutes, then take another cab back to where they started.

What we found was that Tali was charged more than Eynav, despite the fact that they both insisted on paying by the meter. Eynav quickly supplied us with the explanation behind this curious phenomenon. “I heard the cab drivers activate the meter when I asked them to,” she told us, “but before we reached our final destination, I heard many of them turn the meter off so that the fare ended up close to 20 NIS.” This never happened to Tali. What’s more, many other experiments with undergraduates yielded similar results. What these results suggest is that simply making the situation such that people cannot get caught does not automatically lead to higher levels of dishonesty.

So if it’s not necessarily the fear of getting caught, what might be the reasons for increased cheating? Based on our research, I would propose that the primary reason is the increased psychological distance between the dishonest act and its significance, and between teacher and student. The difference a little distance can make is rather impressive. Take the results from a study of around 10,000 golfers who were asked—among other things—how likely golfers were to cheat by moving the lie of a ball by 4 inches through various means: by nudging it with the golf club; by kicking it; or by picking it up and moving it. What these golfers told us was that 23% of golfers would likely move a ball with their club while only 14% and 10% would move it by kicking it and picking it up, respectively. What this tells us is that the extra distance provided by the club allows for twice as much cheating as the unavoidably conscious and culpable act of picking up the ball and moving it.

What does this have to do with cheating in online courses? Online classes are by definition taken at a distance, from the comfort of the student’s home where they are removed from the teacher, the other students, and the academic institution. This distance doesn’t merely allow room for people to get away with dishonest behavior; it creates the psychological distance that allows people to further relax their moral standards.  I suspect that this aspect of psychological distance, and not simply the ease of pulling it off, is at the heart of the online cheating problem.

There is another important reason why we should care whether the cause for online dishonesty is due to its ease or to a change in the perceived moral meaning of the action.  If online cheating is simply a matter of a cost-benefit analysis, we can assume that over time online universities will find ways to monitor and supervise students and this way prevent such behavior.  However, if we think that the root cause of online cheating is more relaxed internal morals, then time is working against us.

Let’s think for a minute about illegal downloads. Have you ever downloaded a song or TV show illegally? How badly do you feel about it? When I ask my students these questions, almost all of them admit to having plenty of illegally downloaded files on their computers—and they don’t feel badly about it.  As it turns out, dishonesty lies on a continuum: there are behaviors we feel badly about, which is where our own morality holds us back. But as cheating in a particular domain becomes more commonplace, the negative feelings associated with it decrease until we don’t really feel badly at all.

Let’s return to Bob and to cheating in online courses. This kind of behavior in online classes worries me because it is becoming more pervasive, and once we reach a point of moral indifference, it is nearly impossible to change this behavior. I don’t think we’ve reached this point yet, so we need to work as hard as we can to counteract the trend toward dishonesty.  Otherwise what’s often considered an important tool for democracy in education could be made worthless.

Starting Fresh.

Aug 05

We lie. We cheat. We bend the rules. We break the rules. And sometimes, as we’ve seen in Greece, it all adds up. But, remarkably, this doesn’t stop us from thinking we’re wonderful, honest people. We’ve become very good at justifying our dishonest behaviors so that, at the end of the day, we feel good about who we are. This tendency is only getting worse, and, as innocent as it may seem, the consequences are becoming more apparent and more serious.

Cheating has less to do with personal gain than it does self-perception. We need to believe that we’re good people, and we’ll do just about anything to maintain that perception. Sometimes, this means behaving in ways that align with our sense of what is right. Other times, it means crossing that line, but turning a blind eye to our behavior, or rationalizing it in some way that allows us to believe it’s OK.

Let’s say your friend, who is not looking their best, asks you how they look, and you don’t want to hurt their feelings, so you lie. You fudge it. You don’t necessarily say, “Wow! You’ve never looked better,” but you don’t tell them the full truth. And you have no problem rationalizing your fib: It’s the right thing to do, because you would never want to hurt your friend’s feelings. Perhaps you used more neutral complimentary terms, or didn’t look them in the eye at that particular moment. These sorts of details would make it easier to justify your well-intentioned lie, and help you sleep at night without giving it a second thought.

The same kind of self-deception applies to wider-scale cheating, although the motivations are usually different. In more professional scenarios, our dishonesty is typically fueled by the desire for wealth or status rather than concern for the reputation of others. Greed is a powerful motivator.

About two months ago, American businessman Garrett Bauer was sentenced to nine years in prison for insider trading. Garrett was one of the people I had spoken to in researching the nature of dishonesty, and to see the consequences of his actions catch up to him that way was a brutal reminder of just how out-of-hand cheating can get. Garrett traded stocks on insider information for about 17 years. He started off small, as people tend to do, and never considered that he might get caught. As time went by, it got easier and easier for him to cheat the system free of guilt. But then he got caught, and now it’s too late to correct his mistakes.

That night, after his sentencing, I couldn’t sleep. I curled into the fetal position – the world looked terrible to me. I had spent the day before in New York giving talk after talk about cheating and dishonesty, how widespread they are, and how little appetite we have to start changing things. With all that cheating weighing on my mind, Garrett’s sentence was an additional terrible blow. It was overwhelmingly sad, and a very painful night.

The consequences of this sort of cheating are even more severe when the network of contagion is larger. We see this when we look at Greece, where masses of people have been cheating a little bit everywhere, and it’s added up. What this shows is just how contagious dishonesty can be. When we see somebody else cheat, especially if they’re part of our own, internal group, all of a sudden we figure out that it’s more acceptable to act this way. It’s not that the probability of our getting caught has changed – it’s that we’ve changed our mindset, convincing ourselves that the act itself is actually OK. At some point, you just think, “This is the way things are done,” and you go with the flow.

One woman from Greece recently told me that she was selling her apartment and she was considering whether to sell it legally (and pay taxes) or illegally (without paying taxes). She quickly recalled that she had bought it illegally, and that she was going to lose money if she would turn around and sell it legally – not to mention that in her mind she would be the only person in Greece paying taxes on real-estate property.

When everyone around you is cheating the system, what’s your motivation to be the one not playing along? And why change now? Why not make changes next month, or next year, instead?

This mentality is accentuated in Greece because it’s not just the everyday citizens who have been cheating – the government has been fudging the books. When cheating is that entrenched in a country, what can you do to stop it? It’s incredibly naïve to think that it will stop on its own. What Greece needs is something like the Reconciliation Act that South Africa adopted, focusing not on the travesties it has done to its people, but on starting fresh.

Every day, people are finding new and more creative ways to cheat, and to justify their dishonest behavior, regardless of the negative impact their actions might have on others. What’s most worrying about this trend is that we still fail to grasp the extent of our dishonesty. But it doesn’t have to be like this. If, on a global scale, we worked to understand the root of our dishonesty, and motivated each other to overcome it, we could do much better.

Swiss Army People

Aug 01

Plato once said that people are like dirt. They can nourish you or stunt your growth.  This seems sage and reasonable, but I think people are more like Swiss Army knives (To be fair, Plato did not have the benefit of knowing of such a tool, so I don’t think I’m detracting from his comparison in the least). Swiss Army knives, as we all know, are incredibly versatile, and have a tool for almost any situation. Need to open a package—it’s got a knife! Sharing beers with friends on the beach—it’s got an opener! Have something in your teeth—there’s a toothpick for that! Need to do a little electrical work—it’s a got a tool that can strip wires! The downside is that Swiss Army knives are not particularly good for any specific purpose because any really intricate task is going to require much more specific tools.

People are a lot like Swiss Army knives from this perspective, and I am saying this with tremendous appreciation.  A lot of the research in behavioral economists criticizes people for various ineptitudes: why we don’t save money, why we don’t exercise, why we text and drive. And it’s true, there’s a lot to criticize and a lot that goes wrong in our decision-making processes, but when you consider just how versatile we are, it’s very impressive. Essentially, we do a lot of things sort of OK. We can reason moderately well about money, we’re often pretty good with various relationships, we’re fairly moral, and most of the time we don’t kill ourselves or others. Not bad if you think about it this way!

Now, some people are more like the specialty tools, like post hole diggers, or lemon zesters, or cigar cutters; in these cases these individuals are truly excellent in certain domains. But often these people aren’t the best at navigating the world in a pragmatic fashion. There are often savants, like Kim Peek (the person that Rain Man is based on), who certainly can’t handle the day-to-day on their own, but have extraordinary abilities in other spheres. And plenty of geniuses have similar problems; take Bobby Fischer’s statelessness and detentions, or van Gogh’s famously self-detrimental tendencies and ultimate suicide. If everyone were like these folks, our species would surely be in peril. If people were all specialized, and could only think numerically, or long-term, or probabilistically, what would life be like? Neither rich nor long.

Of course these people provide inspiration and spur progress, and we admire and celebrate many of them (who don’t put their genius to antisocial use), but we should be grateful that most of us are more like Swiss Army knives.

Partisan Standards of Ethics

Jul 30

We say that politicians are slimy, our noses wrinkling with disdain – but is that the way we like them? It seems the answer depends on whether we agree with their agenda.

With the 2012 election steadily approaching, I wondered whether Democratic and Republican voters hold their preferred candidate and the opposing candidate to similar ethical standards.

To find out, Heather Mann (a graduate student working with me) and I conducted a little survey on American voters. Half the participants were shown a picture of Barack Obama, accompanied by the following paragraph:

“Sometimes, politicians engage in activities that are ethically ‘gray’ (e.g. providing favors to campaign donors, not fully disclosing information to the public, scheduling votes when politicians are away, etc.).

In your mind, how acceptable is it for Obama to engage in ethically gray activities in order to get elected and carry out his agenda?”

The other half of participants was shown a picture of Mitt Romney, and asked the same question about Romney’s ethical standards. All participants rated how acceptable it would be for the candidate to engage in ethically “gray” activities on a scale ranging from 0 (completely unacceptable) to 100 (completely acceptable).

Afterward, we asked participants whether they planned to vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in the 2012 election. (Participants who indicated that they were voting for someone else or weren’t sure were excluded from our sample.)

What we found was that participants who were planning to vote Democratic indicated that Romney should be held to a fairly high ethical standard. Republican participants held a similar standard for Obama. But when participants happened to support the candidate in question – whether Obama or Romney – they indicated that ethically gray activities were approximately 3 times more acceptable.

This study harkens the age-old philosophical question: does the end justify the means?  Judging by the results, it appears that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum feel that it does, at least to a degree.  Democrats and Republicans alike are willing to allow for some shady tactics, provided those tactics advance their own ideals.

Politicians are in a bit of a bind.  On the one hand, they are expected to uphold high ethical standards, while on the other hand, they are supposed to represent their voters.  If voters hold a double standard for the ethical conduct of their own candidate and the opposing candidate, the overall standard of ethics is likely to fall to the lowest common denominator.

If politicians do get a bit “slimy,” are they the only ones to blame?  Who are politicians accountable to, if not their voters?  Finally, if the ethical bar is steadily lowered in the service of advancing party agendas, then who is responsible for raising it?

I ______ a dollar?

Jul 28

As part of the PoorQuality: Inequality exhibition that is currently on display at the CAH, we are showing a piece of art by Jody Servon entitled “I ______  a dollar.” This piece started out as one hundred $1 bills stuck flat against the wall. The bills hung there in a simple, uniform shape, Washington after Washington. The money was there for the taking, but only if you needed it. Jody asked viewers to think about the value of a single dollar, to contemplate their “needs” in relation to their “wants.”

Featuring: Cara Ansher. Photographed by: Aline Grüneisen.

“My hope is for people to actively consider whether or not having this single dollar will make a difference in his or her life, or if they feel the dollar is better left for someone else who needs it more. Perhaps the invitation to take free money will eclipse the question of want vs. need.”

A week went by, and one dollar disappeared. Afraid that the piece would dissolve too quickly, one lab member replaced the missing dollar. The art was whole again. More time went by, and another lab member needed change for the vending machine. So she took five singles and left her $5 bill. We treated the piece as if it was our own, moving bills around but preserving its integrity. The wall of money remained, for the most part, intact.

We asked Jody about her expectations for the piece.

“Among the scenarios I considered were one person swiping all of the dollars on the first day, the dollars slowly disappearing one-by-one, someone rearranging the dollars in a different design, or somewhat disappointingly, the piece remaining on the wall untouched.”

But the wall did not remain untouched, and one day it encountered a group of guests who came in on a particularly quiet day and left with most of the money. Sure, we were a little annoyed; our precious wall had been ransacked. But that was its purpose, and we laughed it off. At least we had a good story, right?

Some time later, one of the ransackers returned. This time, the CAH was bustling, full of people and lively conversation. He walked in, saw the commotion, and hesitated for just a moment before telling us that he was hungry. We don’t have any food here, but there are plenty of restaurants down the street, we told him. Of course, he was not asking where he could buy food. We knew that. But none of us jumped up to offer what was left of the money hanging on the wall. It was art, after all.

Here we were, hosting an exhibit on “inequality,” and there was no doubt that this man lay farther down on the distribution of wealth than any of us. And in all of our musings on the exhibit, never did we think that we might find ourselves faced with the perfect case of actual inequality.

Until this moment, we had primarily used and conceived of the wall of bills as a cashier. Yes, we contemplated whether we needed or simply wanted a dollar. But most of us don’t need a dollar. In the end, this experience may be the ultimate experiment of our project. And we stumbled into it unintentionally, or rather, he stumbled into our gallery.

A collaboration between Dan Ariely & Aline Grüneisen

The PoorQuality: Inequality Exhibit will be up until the end of August (and we will see whether there are any dollar bills left).

A Couple Questions

Jul 25

Excuses. Justifications. Rationalizations. Stories. Stretching the truth… So many ways to whitewash the lies we tell ourselves and others. Here are a few questions that might remind you of your own dalliances with dishonesty.

1. What did you say the last time you were running late?

2. Take a look at your desk at home. How many pens and paperclips and so on did you “borrow” from work?

3. How accurate is your online dating profile? How accurate do you think others are?

4. Which e-mail threads would you delete if you knew someone was going to access your e-mail account?

5. Last time someone called you out for misrepresenting something, how did you explain it?

6. What questionable things have you done because “everybody else is doing it?”

7. Which line items on your resume are a bit of stretch?

8. What did you say the last time someone asked how much you weigh?

9. If you opened your mailbox and found a letter from the IRS informing you of an audit, how concerned would you be?

10. Have you ever told someone you never got their voicemail, text, or email?

11. What did you say the last time someone you don’t particularly like asked if you wanted to go to dinner or an event?

12. Speaking of dinner, have you ever said you enjoyed dinner at someone’s house when you didn’t?

13. What do you say when your dentist asks how often you floss?

14. How many haircuts have you claimed to like in the last year? How many did you actually like?

15. What should you be doing instead of reading this blog and answering these questions?

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