Tag: morality

Murder’s Morality

Aug 24

There are plenty of things that might upset Johnny “The Basin Street Butcher” Martorano. Perhaps having murdered 20 people in the course of his career as a mob hitman doesn’t sit so well decades later. Well, no, this is not it,  Martorano recently recounted his murders as part of Whitey Bulger’s trial with a perfectly flat affect, much to the displeasure of his victims’ families. It seems guilt doesn’t keep him up at night.

Then maybe it’s the 12 years he spent in prison after confessing his crimes to the FBI? Not likely, given Martorano now lives in a nice country club neighborhood, after serving barely half a year for each murder. He literally got away with murder(s).
What about revealing himself to his unsuspecting neighbors by testifying in the sensational trial? Doing so could arguably disrupt the life he’s built for himself since his release from prison. According to the man himself, that’s not at the root of his self-professed suffering.

So what wounded this evidently hard-hearted man? A betrayal of friendship and trust!  During the trial, Martorano said of Bulger and fellow gangster, Stephen Flemmi (in perhaps the only instance the expression has been used in earnest) “They were my partners in crime, they were my best friends, they were my children’s godfathers.” Of all the things that could cause The Basin Street Butcher pain, it was the snitching of his fellow murderers.

This is the kind of “irrational ethics” I’ve found through many interviews with convicted criminals. Usually the crimes for which they’re incarcerated aren’t the cause of their moral outrage, it’s that someone from their inside group inviolated a moral rule that was part of their moral code, in this case, cooperating with the “enemy.” This is the power of social norms in its most extreme form. Even though the usual societal rules are disregarded, another sort of code emerges and becomes the basis for judging one’s actions. So it’s “okay” to kill a person outside your in-group for stealing or talking to the cops, but it’s crossing the ultimate line to do so within the group. All that said, you really have to wonder what their get-togethers were like.

The Little Bank That Did.

Mar 23

Over the last few years, I’ve had some harsh words for bankers, banks, and the culture of the industry. In truth, I could have said worse, and it would have been justified.

That’s why the story of this bank—the Hancock Bank of Mississippi—deserves to be told, watched, and learned from. This is a case where banks play the role they are ideally meant to play, that is, they invest in the stabilization and growth of the community they’re part of, and wind up profiting in the long run from those investments.

It’s the way they did this that’s particularly remarkable—by literally laundering debris-covered dollar bills and handing them out to people in the days immediately following the Hurricane Katrina. How and why they did this is best left to the film clip; suffice it to say that Hancock gave out around $50 million in cash, with handwritten IOUs for contracts, and lost (only) about $200,000 of that when all was said and done. But in the 3 months following the storm, Hancock grew by $1.4 billion. It’s not hard to imagine that the kind of genuine investment they made in their community—both customers and not—earned so much loyalty.

Banks and their leadership have a long way to go to get out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves in the minds of most people. While disasters provide a great opportunity to show caring, I don’t think that banks need to wait for another hurricane to do something –there are many ways to show care and commitment to the community, and it’s in everyone’s interest that they start soon.

Social power and morality

Jun 20

The following is taken from the graduation speech of Michael Lewis at Princeton in 2012. In it, he discusses an experiment that explores the relationship between power and morality.

“…… a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.”


We’ve probably all heard the saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Well, there is a great deal of research concerning the link between social power and morality, and most of it suggests that absolute power is not required to change people’s morals; sadly it tends to show that more power leads to less care for others, and less moral behavior.

Creating God in Our Own Image

Apr 05

Question: what are God’s views on affirmative action, the death penalty and same-sex marriage? Answer: whatever you want them to be.

That’s according to a recent study by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, found that we tend to ascribe our own views to God.

Past studies have shown that when we reason about other people, we form an opinion of their views based on two sources: egocentric info (i.e., what we ourselves believe) and outside clues (what the other person has said and done, and what others have said about them).

Here, the researchers wanted to find out how much we rely on egocentric info to construe other people’s views, including God’s. To that end, they had devout American participants provide their personal views on various issues (abortion, death penalty, Iraq war, etc.), as well as what they thought were the views of others (Katie Couric, George Bush, the average American, God, etc.).

When the researchers compared participants’ personal views with the participants’ estimates of others’ views, they found one significant pattern: there was a correlation between participants’ personal views and their estimates of God’s view. For example, participants who said they were for same-sex marriage tended to also say that God was for same-sex marriage. And participants who said they were against same-sex marriage tended to also say that God was against same-sex marriage.

But this wasn’t the case for the other figures – Couric, Bush, average American, and so forth. Participants who said they were for same-sex marriage were statistically neither more nor less likely to say that Couric was for same-sex marriage than those who held the opposite view. In other words, what I say Couric thinks has nothing to do with what I myself think. But what I say God thinks has lots to do with what I myself think.

But correlation doesn’t imply causation, so to shed light on the direction of causality, the researchers ran two follow-up experiments. This time, instead of just surveying participants for current views, they induced participants to change their personal views by randomly assigning them to give speeches for or against the issue (death penalty) in front of a camera. Because it was random assignment, some people ended up arguing for their personal view, while others argued against it (many past studies have shown that in this context, people tend to shift their own opinions in a direction consistent with the speech they delivered). So, what about the other views (God’s, Couric’s etc.) – would the participant revise those as well?

Yes and no. The only other view that changed was God’s. As participants’ own views changed, so did their estimates of God’s view. The participant who started out very much for the death penalty but took on a more moderate view after arguing against the death penalty on camera also ascribed a more moderate view to God. But his estimates of the others’ views remained unchanged.

Overall these results suggest that God is a blank slate onto which we project whatever we choose to. We join religious communities that argue for our viewpoint and we interpret religious readings to support our personal positions.

Irrationally Yours,


p.s and happy birthday to my little sister Tali

NYT Year In Ideas

Dec 15

The New York Times Magazine publishes once a year the “years in ideas.”

This is the third year in a row that they are picking one of my papers, which is very nice of them.

It is also particularity nice of them that this year they picked two papers I am a part of.

One of the papers they picked this year is: The Counterfeit Self

Her is their report:
Wearing imitation designer clothing or accessories can fool others — but no matter how convincing the knockoff, you never, of course, fool yourself. It’s a small but undeniable act of duplicity. Which led a trio of researchers to suspect that wearing counterfeits might quietly take a psychological toll on the wearer.

To test their hunch, the psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked two groups of young women to wear sunglasses taken from a box labeled either “authentic” or “counterfeit.” (In truth, all the eyewear was authentic, donated by a brand-name designer interested in curtailing counterfeiting.) Then the researchers put the participants in situations in which it was both easy and tempting to cheat.

In one situation, which was ostensibly part of a product evaluation, the women wore the shades while answering a set of very simple math problems — under heavy time pressure.

Afterward, given ample time to check their work, they reported how many problems they were able to answer correctly. They had been told they’d be paid for each answer they reported getting right, thus creating an incentive to inflate their scores. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers knew each person’s actual score. Math performance was the same for the two groups — but whereas 30 percent of those in the “authentic” condition inflated their scores, a whopping 71 percent of the counterfeit-wearing participants did so.
Why did this happen? As Gino puts it, “When one feels like a fake, he or she is likely to behave like a fake.” It was notable that the participants were oblivious to this and other similar effects the researchers discovered: the psychological costs of cheap knockoffs are hidden. The study is currently in press at the journal Psychological Science.

Could other types of fakery also lead to ethical lapses? “It’s a fascinating research question,” says Gino, who studies organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina. “There are lots of situations on the job where we’re not true to ourselves, and we might not realize there might be unintended consequences.”

The second paper they picked this year is: The Drunken Ultimatum

Her is their report:

The so-called ultimatum game contains a world of psychological and economic mysteries. In a laboratory setting, one person is given an allotment of money (say, $100) and instructed to offer a second person a portion. If the second player says yes to the offer, both keep the cash. If the second player says no, both walk away with nothing.

The rational move in any single game is for the second person to take whatever is offered. (It’s more than he came in with.) But in fact, most people reject offers of less than 30 percent of the total, punishing offers they perceive as unfair. Why?

The academic debate boils down to two competing explanations. On one hand, players might be strategically suppressing their self-interest, turning down cash now in the hope that if there are future games, the “proposer” will make better offers. On the other hand, players might simply be lashing out in anger.

The researchers Carey Morewedge and Tamar Krishnamurti, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Dan Ariely, of Duke, recently tested the competing explanations — by exploring how drunken people played the game.

As described in a working paper now under peer review, Morewedge and Krishnamurti took a “data truck” to a strip of bars on the South Side of Pittsburgh (where participants were “often at a level of intoxication that is greater than is ethical to induce”) and also did controlled testing, in labs, of people randomly selected to get drunk.
The scholars were interested in drunkenness because intoxication, as other social-science experiments have shown, doesn’t fuzz up judgment so much as cause the drinker to overly focus on the most prominent cue in his environment. If the long-term-strategy hypothesis were true, drunken players would be more inclined to accept any amount of cash. (Money on the table generates more-visceral responses than long-term goals do.) If the anger/revenge theory were true, however, drunken players would become less likely to accept low offers: raw anger would trump money-lust.

In both setups, drunken players were less likely than their sober peers to accept offers of less than 50 percent of the total. The finding suggests, the authors said, that the principal impulse driving subjects was a wish for revenge.

Lets see if this trend continues….

3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal

Mar 13

The first chapter of the Bernie Madoff fiasco has come to a close, with Madoff pleading guilty to 11 charges of fraud yesterday.

Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme was horrific on many levels. But while we watch the next phase of the scandal, it’s important to ask: What lessons are we going to learn from this? I can see three lessons that relate to my work studying human irrationality — and in particular, some non-useful lessons we might learn.

One lesson that individuals and foundations are likely to take from the Madoff scandal is that in addition to diversifying their portfolio across several investments (stock, bonds, equity, cash), they also need to diversify their investments among several advisors. While the idea of diversifying among advisors has some merit — and it could reduce the exposure risk of another Madoff scandal — it will also make the task of managing portfolios much more difficult and much less efficient. Imagine that you have $1,000,000, split among four advisors. You will need a whole new level of coordination among them so they can have the right amount of cash, bonds, stocks etc., across all of your assets.

And I think that people will begin to over-diversify across investors. Why? Because when we have one large and salient instance in our minds, it can be so powerful that we overemphasize it. This same effect is very apparent in what we call “the identifiable victim effect,” and it is the reason that we overemphasize the risks of a shark attack, and underestimate the risks of riding a bike without a helmet. In general, what we find when there’s one single vivid event is that people overweight it — we focus on it too much. So that’s the first lesson: We’re going to learn from the Madoff scandal, but we are going to overdo it.

Another non-useful lesson that I think we will adopt is to start searching with more vigor for other bad apples. On one hand, it is clearly important to prevent more Madoffs, but at the same time I worry that as a consequence of searching for bad apples, we won’t pay enough attention to other financial behavior that might not be as badly wrong but that can actually have larger financial consequences.

In our research on dishonesty, we found that when we give people the opportunity to cheat, many of them cheat by a little bit, while very few cheat by a lot. In our experiments, we lost about $100 to the few people who cheated a lot — but lost thousands of dollars to the many people who each cheated by a bit. I suspect that this is a good reflection of cheating in the stock market, where the real financial cost of the egregious cheating by Madoff is actually a tiny fraction of all the “small” cheating carried out by “good” bankers.

The risk here is that if we pay too much attention to chasing bad apples, we might pay too little attention to the situations where the small dishonesties of many people can have large consequences (such as paying slightly higher salaries to cronies, making small changes to financial reports, doctoring documents, being slightly dishonest about mortgage terms), and in the process neglect the real economic source of the trouble we are in.

A third bad lesson that I think people will take from this concerns the way we define acceptable levels of cheating. In a study that may parallel Madoff’s egregious dishonesty, we again gave the participants the opportunity to cheat, while solving a puzzle quiz — but this time we hired an actor. This actor, posing as a fellow participant, stood up at the start of the session and declared that he had solved all the puzzles. Now the question is how his behavior would influence the other participants in the room — the ones who were watching him.

What we found is that when the actor wore a plain T-shirt, which made him part of the student group, cheating increased. On the other hand, when the actor wore a T-shirt of the rivaling university, cheating decreased. What this means is that when someone who is part of our own social group cheats, we find it more acceptable to cheat, but when people who are not part of our social group cheat, we want to distance ourselves from these people and cheat less.

Madoff was part of the financial elite — part of an in-group of our financial leaders. Think of all these people who were in his house, who knew him well. So now, when other people in this circle see him cheating, think about the long-term consequences: Would these other people in this financial industry now be more likely to take the immoral path? It doesn’t have to be another Ponzi scheme. It just means that, now that they have been exposed to this extreme level of dishonesty, they might adopt slightly lower moral scruples. Maybe they will start not letting their clients know exactly what they own and what they don’t own, or change a little bit the interest rate that they’re charging them … I don’t think that those in his circle will necessarily become more Madoff-like people, but I do suspect that they will get a substantial relief from their moral shackles. Sadly, that’s his legacy.

So, Chapter One of the Madoff scandal is over, but I worry that the negative downstream consequences of this experience are just starting …

The Blurry Line Between Right and Wrong

Jan 15

An interesting story out of the BBC: one priest, Father Tim Jones, recently gave an incredibly provocative sermon where he offered controversial advice–to shoplift. His argument is basically that those who are less fortunate may often turn to illegal means: they can rob, they can become prostitutes, etc… Jones is arguing that of these “evils,” shoplifting, especially from large corporations, has the least impact on society, and thus, somehow, is the least immoral. Of course from a psychological standpoint this is our intuition. It is easy to do harm to large corporations because we think that we are spreading our damage out evenly among more individuals, and, moreover, those individuals are faceless people wearing suits. However, giving this more thought, we can also sense that if we were to allow this to happen as a society (or be more forgiving of poor people who steal from big corporations to get by), we could very quickly slip into a system of mutual distrust. Before you know it, we will all be having to have our bags checked at entrances and exits, with costs going up for everyone. On the whole, this might leave fewer people with jobs, and the cycle could continue to spiral out of control. As we know, many of the biggest financial blunders of the recent years had to do with tiny misjudgments that added up to larger and more catastrophic costs, with the resulting mutual distrust freezing credit and badly hurting the economy. One thing we must beware of is the allure of thinking that our tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions won’t matter much in the long run. As history and research have shown us, it’s the little decisions that we gloss over that end up hurting us most in the end.



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