Our Buggy Moral Code

The gist: We have strong beliefs in our intuitions even when they are wrong. Our attitude towards cheating varies a lot as certain conditions change. We may not be as moral and rational as we think.

“We have very strong intuitions about all kinds of things –our own ability, how the economy works, how we should pay school teachers. But unless we start testing those intuitions, we’re not going to do better.”

Most of us would say that we are good people. But to what extent are we honest? Are we affected by outside factors? Dan Ariely talks about a series experiments that he conducted to explore people’s notion of morality. Here’s what he found:

  • Many people cheat, but by just a little bit. We choose to cheat at a low degree when we can benefit from it without changing our impressions of ourselves. Dan calls it our “personal fudge factor.”
  • People cheat less when reminded of their morality. This is why we sign honor codes before taking exams in college—it shrinks our fudge factor.
  • When distanced from the actual money, we cheat more. Most of us wouldn’t take even 10 cents from a petty cash box, but taking a pencil from office is suddenly okay because it’s not actual money.
  • When we see someone from our own group cheat, we cheat more. Humans tend to act as a group thus are highly influenced by the environment we are in. Sometimes it’s not even peer pressure; we just conform to a certain action without realizing.

So how does this all link to real life? Dan mentions the stock market: what happens when people call money “stock”? How do people react when they see other people’s behaviors around them? It’s all in our buggy moral code.