Today many Americans find themselves thinking: how are politicians so comfortable lying?
The answer may be found in the important element of how they lie. Specifically, politicians rarely lie straightforwardly; instead, they bend the truth. Because “truth bending” is rooted in some version of the truth, it creates enough wiggle room for politicians to maintain the belief that they are good, honest people.
Moral psychology shows that people lie to the extent that they can still see themselves as good people. Their wrongful or shady actions need to allow enough wiggle room such that they do not perceive themselves as bad, and truth-bending conveniently provides this flexibility.
Most of the popular 2012 elections lies are examples of truth bending. When we examine this component, we can better understand why politicians feel so comfortable making false claims. Let’s take a look at two of the most popular bends.
“The 47 Percent” Attack Ads
Obama for America ads use the 47% comments to say Romney doesn’t care about veterans, the elderly, and at least 47% of the country.
Romney commented in a discussion of his campaign strategy, “My job is not is not to care about … the 47%.” However, he did not mean that he did not care about these people nor did he state that he does not want their lives to be improved. Instead, Romney meant that he would not focus on courting these voters because he believes that those efforts would be a waste of the Romney campaign’s time.
“You didn’t build that”
The Romney campaign publicizes the following quote from Obama: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” This quote is used by the Romney Campaign to express that Obama does not think that businesses build themselves and instead rely completely on the government to succeed.
Obama stated that, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” In this quote, Obama expresses his belief that government can help create the environment that permits businesses to thrive. Obama says businesses did not build the roads that the businesses use. He does not claim people didn’t build their own businesses.
Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that when people want to do or believe something, they ask themselves, “Can I do this?” and search for an argument to support their desired actions.
Thus, when deciding whether an action is morally permissible, people have to convince themselves that it is. Without enough wiggle room, people cannot always rationalize their actions. However, as in the examples above, the combination of three factors create enough wiggle room for the campaigns to carry out such truth bending.
1. There is a bit of truth in the lie. These bends are grounded in direct quotes, or what high school students would call “primary evidence.” A politician may feel morally wrong putting words in another politician’s mouth, but taking the words that another politician said out of context may feel less wrong.
2. The essence of the message is true. Even if politicians realize they are bending the truth, technically, they may believe that they are still expressing the truth. The Obama campaign believes Romney only cares about the individuals at the top and the Romney campaign believes that Obama doesn’t care for individualism or the private sector. Their political ads may distort the truth of an isolated statement, but they also believe that the ads communicate a larger truth about the other candidate.
3. Both firmly believe they are the good guy fighting for the world. When people believe they are doing something altruistic (e.g., helping a family member), their wiggle room (and, consequently, their dishonest behavior) grows. Since politicians believe they are fighting for the good of the entire world, their wiggle room is proportionately greater.
A final caveat. One view may be that politicians are intentionally lying as much as possible and only curbing their lies out of fear of media scrutiny. Though the media does play a role in curbing bends, a richer understanding of the 2012 election comes from understanding politicians as somewhat normal moral beings who are in the perfect situation to bend the truth.
~Troy Campbell and Rachel Anderson~
Over the past week I have blogged about the amorality of drunk driving and critiqued some of the policies attempting to curb drunk driving. Drawing from behavioral economics research and the comments I received, I have drafted 4 ways to combat Drunk Driving. Finally, I included a one-way caveat about why this problem will remain difficult.
#1 Friends need to speak up. “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” is a great slogan and I have followed that slogan my entire life. However, most nights I am working late in the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Thus most nights I am not with my peers while they are drinking and potentially driving. I think a better slogan would be “Friends tell their friends that drunk driving is wrong.” I find myself always nodding and laughing to others’ stories of drunk driving, when I should be expressing my disapproval. Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind) argues that gossip and social disapproval can help regulate morality.
#2 Clean Slate. One problem with drunk driving is that most people likely to offend have already offended and may have even been arrested. We need a way for people to say, “That was a mistake and I won’t do it again.” I am personally looking into this clean slate idea and hope to provide some clarity in the near future.
#3 Stigmatize. How to properly calibrate appeals and accomplish this will be difficult but we need to make drunk driving look disgusting rather than sexy (as I think some ad campaigns do). We can call on some of the smoking ads which made smoking seem less attractive and attractive people condemn smoking. Backlash may occur, but a systematic and well-funded experimental research program should discover something nuanced enough to work. This means the government needs to team up with researchers and conduct large-scale experiments. University researchers can come up with theories to guide policy, but policymakers need to calibrate these theories into efficacious policy.
#4 Remove the Fudge Factor. How many times have you heard people say “I am not drunk, I can drive.” No matter how much you try and convince them they are drunk, they protest. However, if you could show them via a breathalyzer that their blood alcohol content was above the legal limit, then people (even when drunk) might have a harder time justifying getting behind the wheel. Would mandatory breathalyzers at bars reduce drunk driving? It is an empirical question worth answering.
Another possibility is to adopt the Alcohol Anonymous practice of saying, “One drink is one drink too many.” If one could not drink period, then any drinking makes one cross the line. If there was a large public awareness campaign (integrated with alcohol companies’ ads) indicating that designated drivers do not drink one drink, this could potentially be effective.
A Final Caveat. Some readers used psychological research to claim that threats of punishment might be the only thing that will work. They argued, because people who drive drunk do not think they are endangering others, they do not think they are engaging in any moral violation. Thus if drunk driving is not seen as a moral violation then only the assurance of random checkpoints and breathalyzer tests will curb drunk driving. I think this speaks to my point. All drunk driving policy is shortsighted; it asks what could we do right now to reduce drunk driving. It does not consider the effectiveness of developing national moral standards or engaging in rigorous experimental research (though some does exist). However, as I have argued above, I think we can and need to transform drunk driving into more of a moral issue.
I want to share with you what appears to me like one of the most ill-advised anti-Drunk Driving campaigns ever created. Ironically, I was walking across the Duke quad on my way to the social psychology building when I passed these ads that so blatantly disregard basic social psychology.
The anti-Drunk Driving ads featured famous celebrities in mug shots and with tag lines such as “Billy Joe supports DUI” (lead singer of Green Day) and “Flo Rida supports DUI” (popular hip hop artist). Most of these were celebrities I personally liked, though there were a few I disliked (such as Paris Hilton).
Quick social psychology quiz! “If a celebrity who you think is the coolest person on the planet is doing something, will telling you about it reduce your likelihood to do it?” No. My immediate response to the Billy Joe ad was to defend my high school hero and downplay the moral wrongness of his drunk driving offense. For some people, these ads might even have made drunk driving seem like a rebellious way to connect with these celebrities.
If you want to reduce illegal alcoholic behavior, then you need to pair the behavior with an outgroup or person one does not want to associated with. This is what I think this campaign may have been trying to go for on some level (e.g. Paris Hilton) but failed to do so. By comparison, Wharton Professor Jonah Berger succeeded at this strategy. Together with his colleagues, he put posters up in undergraduate dorms that associated heavy alcohol consumption with graduate students. Since undergraduates generally wish not to be associated with graduate students, undergraduates’ heavy alcoholic consumption dropped. It is comforting to know that my graduate student outgroup can cause some good in this world.
See you next week for Part 3 of the Amorality of Drunk Driving.
Recently, the “choose-your-ride” car (pictured here) has been roaming around downtown Durham and Duke University. The car seeks to reduce drunk driving by posing a choice between a $20 taxi or $1,000 fine. At first glance, this seems like a good strategy and it may indeed do some good. However, the car seems to missing one important element and it is the topic of Dan Ariely’s new book: morality.
In “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” Ariely argues that morality matters. He explains how criminal behavior is not a simple cost-benefit analysis, and the threat of punishment only seems to work well when enforcement is nearly certain and extremely severe. Given that 300,000 of the Americans arrested for drunk driving every year are re-offenders, it seems that the threat and actual experience of consequences are not working so smashingly. Overall, drunk driving is rampant in the states. There are 900,000+ arrests a year. That’s arrest alone! The number of people driving drunk is much higher.
Drunk driving is not a niche offense; it is a social phenomenon that many see as a perfectly acceptable behavior. In movie The Hangover, Zach Galifinakas captures many American’s thoughts on drunk driving when he fondly remembers the night before and laughs it off saying, “Driving drunk, classic!” Many Americans simply feel no moral outrage with drunk driving, especially if they or their friends are the drivers. And what troubles me is that attempts like the “choose-your-ride” car do nothing to address this moral hole in the American conscience. According to Dan Ariely’s research on cheating, people cheat just as long as they can see themselves as good people. It’s no wonder people keep driving drunk, because society has done nothing to convince people that it is wrong.
Here are three specific ways this car fails to appeal to morality:
It makes it a choice. Think of other moral violations such as cheating in a marriage. For many, to even contemplate the idea of marital infidelity would be morally taboo. It should be the same with drunk driving. People engage in cost-benefit analyses for many actions, but when the action is in the moral domain this happens to a far lesser degree. When something is in the moral domain, hardline rules and concerns for one’s self-concept take over.
It puts a price on the crime. It turns a moral issue into a question of whether you want to pay $1,000 or if you can outwit the cops. According to the message sent by this car, you are not a bad person if you drive drunk. Instead, you are simply a person who is willing to pay a $1,000 fine.
It removes moral feelings. In chapter 9 of “The Upside of Irrationality,” Ariely discusses how thinking of situations like a math problem (rational thinking) can lead to less morality, because moral action is often driven by feelings. Here, the only feeling the car potentially activates is fear and the mathematical nature of the appeal might reduce any potential moral feelings people might have to begin with.
So what can we do?
Like with most socio-political issues, it is easy to criticize others’ solution and hard to put forth your own. Next week, I’ll attempt to put forth my own potential solutions to transform drunk driving into a moral issue. In the meantime, what do you think? Do you know people who chronically drive drunk? Can drunk driving be turned into something that is globally seen as morally detestable? If you have any solutions, ideas or articles you think would serve the blog, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to include them in part 2.
I am interested in the morally ambiguous realm of music/video/book piracy, a place where everyone has something to say and no qualms about saying it. A couple weeks ago, over a chocolate croissant, I was having what was probably my 5,637th conversation on this topic, and my new friend (for his own protection let’s just call him Steve — apologies to all the Steves out there) began voicing his opinions: he was vehemently against illegal downloading, but fine with checking CDs out from the library and making personal copies for himself.
The conversation went as follows:
Me: “You know that’s illegal?”
Steve: “It’s a gray area.”
Me: “According to the law, it is not.”
Steve: “I still think it is kind of gray. And I need to put the songs on my iPod to listen to them, so I have to copy them anyway.”
After this conversation I was left wondering whether Steve was a criminal anomaly or if the rest of America was on his side. So I divided a sample of Americans into two groups and had them rate the moral “wrongness” of the two types of piracy. Group A) was told that Steve downloaded an album online without paying and Group B) was told that Steve checked out the CD from the library and made a personal copy.
The Conclusion: America agrees with Steve. People generally viewed Steve’s actions as significantly less morally adverse when he made a copy from the library. From a legal perspective, Steve had committed an equally unlawful act, but Americans still viewed the crimes differently.
So how could (illegally) copying from the library be viewed as less wrong than (illegally) downloading?
Illegal downloading has a sting against it while copying does not. Copying does not feel as much like stealing. There’s also a fellow person or institution (like a library or generous friend) to share your sin with. Pirates are a tainted outgroup, but anyone can be a copier of media.
Libraries make it okay. It can be safely assumed that libraries know that we have the ability to copy CDs but make no efforts to stop us; by providing us with the opportunity, they are more or less condoning piracy.
It’s so easy to copy CDs. For this study our sample consisted mostly of people who do not know how to illegally download online (e.g., they were not particularly aware of cyber lockers or torrent clients). In other words, they probably know how to copy and burn a CD but not illegally download music. I believe that most of the moral qualms people have against piracy would be wiped away if they just learned a virus-free, super-easy way to pirate high quality media.
I think the “easy” factor is partially why people view streaming illegal content (watching the content within browser without downloading it) as different from illegally downloading. Many illegal streamers say they are okay with streaming but not downloading because streaming is just “borrowing.” I think that, in actuality, people choose not to download because they do not know how, they find downloading to be a hassle, or are scared of viruses rather than because of their high moral standards. To avoid looking incompetent, they say (and believe) that the reason they don’t illegally download is because that type of piracy is morally wrong. But the kind they can do and easily benefit from (like copying from library CDs) is okay.
If you would like to help us out and provide any strong (or morally gray) opinions, please share them with us
How the Start of a Month Changes Everything (or seems that way)
A couple days ago, we took advantage of the changing of the months to run a series of studies on people’s confidence in achieving their closely approaching goals.
We asked them questions about how successful they felt they would be in reaching their goals tomorrow and in the next few days and how different things would be. For some, we subtly reminded them of the upcoming May 1st.
We found that the reminder of “May” made people think that they and others would be far more successful. This was controlling for gender, level of current struggling, importance of the goal, and previous contentment with goal progress. And we looked at both specific and general sets of goals.
Why? Calendar boundaries show how relatively irrelevant boundaries can drastically change how we compartmentalize events (For an example of how statelines can ‘prevent’ earthquakes see here). In this instance, a simple reminder of the upcoming month does not lead people to think that they themselves will change a lot but that the externalities that have recently been in their way will wane.
An Upside to Irrationality?
So how should we view this new finding? Are people being rational, irrational, or strategically irrational? We know from tons of research that people ignore base rates and make egregious forecasting errors about their life.
I think that this is an upside to irrationality. The new month gives us the opportunity to refocus and pre-commit to our goals through new gym memberships or a trip to an organic grocery store (I just signed up for an organic vegetable/fruit/bread delivery service, which I highly recommend). Furthermore, these temporal boundaries fill us with self-efficacy, which have been shown to be positively related to accomplishing goals.
Industries of self-help could take advantage of these boundaries and possibly create more “meaningless” boundaries to help motivate their clients.
Irrational or not, putting the past in the past is a great way to motivate us in the present. May your May be full of success!