Monday, August 20, 2012

A silver lining about ethics

OK, since my last post was so depressing about ethics, I have to add one of the positive takeaways from Dan's work.

He ran a version of his study all over the world.  He found the same results everywhere.  West and east.  Developed and developing. 

Why is this a positive?  Isn't it even worse that we are unethical all over the world?  At least it shows that humanity has something in common.  Something we can point to as a shared characteristic.  And if we find a way to overcome this lapse in one place, we can use the same intervention all around the world. 

The slippery slope of ethics

A new article at MIT Technology Review discusses the finding that it is easier to be ethical 100% of the time than 98% of the time.  

On the very surface, this seems paradoxical, but it really isn't.  Knowing in your mind that “this can be one of the 2% I do the wrong thing if I want it to” sanctions you to do the wrong thing a lot more than 2% of the time.  It turns out that our brains don't represent"2%" very well.  Instead, we use a more fuzzy concept like "most of the time" which can be something more like 80-90%.  

What long term effects does this have?  Dan Ariely says that the slippery slope on cheating is pretty strong.  Once you have set your ethics at a fuzzy level, it slowly becomes “often” (60-70%), then “when possible” (40-50%), “only when I feel virtuous” (30%, 20%).  He talks about the “what the heck” threshold where honesty is just not an attribute in your self-identity anymore.  At this point, you don’t have worry about ethics at all any more. 

So the message is that we have to keep ethics at an absolute 100%.  But how do we do this with dishonesty?  We learn from an early age that we lie to be nice to people (“Sure, your new haircut looks great”), to keep harmony in the home (“I’d be happy to have lasagna again”).  Even G-d does it (you can read the Abraham and Sara story in Genesis or in this fantastic interview of Dan Ariely’s on the DR Show).  

Maybe we are just screwed.  We are destined to have Enrons, Madoffs, et al forever. What a cheery thought for a Monday.