The Interior Situation of Honesty (and Dishonesty)
Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 4, 2009
Seed magazine recently provided a terrific summary of fascinating research on the situation of honesty (here). Here are some excerpts.
* * *
In a famous set of experiments in the 1970s, children were observed trick-or-treating in the suburbs. Some were asked their names and addresses upon arriving at a door, while some were asked nothing. All were instructed to take just one piece of candy from the bowl, but as soon as the owner of the home retreated into the kitchen, the children who hadn’t provided their names and addresses shoveled the candy into their bags, sometimes taking everything in the bowl. Psychologists posited that anonymity made the children feel safe from the repercussions of their actions, an effect they call deindividuation.
Moral psychologists have since constructed myriad experiments to probe the workings of human morality, studying how we decide to cheat or to play by the rules, to lie or to tell the truth. And the results can be surprising, even disturbing. For instance, we have based our society on the assumption that deciding to lie or to tell the truth is within our conscious control. But Harvard’s Joshua Greene and Joseph Paxton say this assumption may be flawed and are probing whether honesty may instead be the result of controlling a desire to lie (a conscious process) or of not feeling the temptation to lie in the first place (an automatic process). “When we are honest, are we honest because we actively force ourselves to be? Or are we honest because it flows naturally?” Greene asks.
Greene and Paxton have just published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that attempts to get at the subconscious underpinnings of morality by recording subjects’ brain activity as they make a decision to lie.
* * *
[Using fMRI to examine the brain’s activity during lying and telling the truth, researchers Joshua Greene and Joseph Paxon] found that honesty is an automatic process—but only for some people. Comparing scans from tests with and without the opportunity to cheat, the scientists found that for honest subjects, deciding to be honest took no extra brain activity. But for others, the dishonest group, both deciding to lie and deciding to tell the truth required extra activity in the areas of the brain associated with critical thinking and self-control.
Their findings—that honesty is automatic for some people—is part of a growing body of work that shows that many, if not most, of our daily actions are not under our conscious control. According to [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, a Yale social psychologist who studies automaticity, even our higher mental processes are performed unconsciously in response to environmental cues.
“It could potentially be some of the most intriguing evidence for group selection,” Bargh speculates, adding that the results are reminiscent of the evolutionary idea that “cheaters” and “suckers” coexist in a specific ratio in the animal kingdom.
* * *
To read the entire article, which is very interesting, click here. For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Trust,” “The Situation of Lying,” “The Facial Obviousness of Lying,” “Denial,” “Cheating Doesn’t Pay . . . So Why So Much of it?” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”