The psychology of morality
Time to be honest
A simple experiment suggests a way to encourage truthfulness
Mar 31st 2012
"IS SIN original?" That is the question addressed by Shaul Shalvi, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, in a paper just published in Psychological Science. Dr Shalvi and his colleagues, Ori Eldar and Yoella Bereby-Meyer of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, wanted to know if the impulse to cheat is something that grows or diminishes when the potential cheater has time for reflection on his actions. Is cheating, in other words, instinctive or calculating?
Appropriately, the researchers' apparatus for their experiment was that icon of sinful activity, the gambling die. They wanted to find out whether people were more likely to lie about the result of a die roll when asked that result immediately, or when given time to think.
To carry out their experiment, Dr Shalvi, Dr Eldar and Dr Bereby-Meyer gave each of 76 volunteers a six-sided die and a cup. Participants were told that a number of them, chosen at random, would earn ten shekels (about $2.50) for each pip of the numeral they rolled on the die. They were then instructed to shake their cups, check the outcome of the rolled die and remember this roll. Next, they were asked to roll the die two more times, to satisfy themselves that it was not loaded, and, that done, to enter the result of the first roll on a computer terminal. Half of the participants were told to complete this procedure within 20 seconds while the others were given no time limit.
The researchers had no way of knowing what numbers participants actually rolled, of course. But they knew, statistically, that the average roll, if people reported honestly, should have been 3.5. This gave them a baseline from which to calculate participants' honesty. Those forced to enter their results within 20 seconds, the researchers found, reported a mean roll of 4.6. Those who were not under any time pressure reported a mean roll of 3.9. Both groups lied, then. But those who had had more time for reflection lied less.
A second experiment confirmed this result. A different bunch of volunteers were asked to roll the die just once. Again, half were put under time pressure and, since there were no additional rolls to make, the restriction was changed from 20 seconds to eight. The others were allowed to consider the matter for as long as they wished.
In this case the first half reported an average roll of 4.4. Those given no time limit reported an average of 3.4. The second lot, in other words, actually told the truth.
The conclusion, therefore, at least in the matter of cheating at dice, is that sin is indeed original. Without time for reflection, people will default to the mode labelled "cheat". Given such time, however, they will often do the right thing. If you want someone to be honest, then, do not press him too hard for an immediate decision.