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.


Are we in control of our own decisions?

The gist: We are not as ration or in control as we think we are with our decisions. We are constantly and unknowingly influenced by how the options are presented to us.

“…If we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us in the face in the same way, we could design a better world.”

We tend to think that we are blessed with rationality thus must be able to make appropriate judgments based on our preferences. But that’s just not the case. Dan Ariely uses a series of cognitive illusions to show that half of the time, we really don’t know what we want!

One example he uses shows that people’s choices of agreeing to organ donation are largely dependent upon what the default option is. Some might say, we choose the default because we don’t care about this. But Dan says that it’s the opposite. It’s because this subject is so complex and difficult that we don’t know what to do. Under such circumstances, we just pick whatever was chosen for us. What an interesting point—how often are we guilty of this illusion? How often do we just go with the default because it’s easy?

The newspaper subscription experiment shows that we are especially susceptible to the way options are laid out when we are unsure about our preferences. In other words, unless you are absolutely sure that you only want option A and hate option B with passion, your final choice can be greatly influenced by the presentation.

Of course it’s not realistic to completely avoid cognitive illusions. After all, we are just humans. But like Dan said, being aware of our limitations is crucial to designing a better world.

What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?

The gist: We feel good about our work when we feel proud, recognized, and appreciated. The intrinsic motivation is much stronger than any extrinsic motivation.

“How do we create our own meaning, pride, motivation, and how do we do it in our workplace and for the employees, I think we could get people to both be more productive and happier.”

To feel good about our work, we need motivation. If money is the best incentive, then people with high-paying jobs should be the happiest. If internal joy is the best, then people should do whatever they like even if their efforts aren’t recognized. But neither appears to be the case. As it turns out, we want our efforts to be seen. We want to feel acknowledged and valued. If there were no end result, even a fun job we would otherwise enjoy would become futile and unattractive.

In the Lego experiment, the participants who had their Legos destroyed every time they finished were much less likely to continue building them. This result holds true even for people that love Legos. This shows that not having our work recognized kills the joy from it. In workplace, ignoring people’s efforts is as bad as destroying it in front of them. But as a caveat, ignoring effort seems incredibly easy, but recognizing it isn’t so difficult—don’t over do it!

The origami experiment shows that we naturally like our work better.  No wonder my IKEA swivel chair looks so great to me, maybe because I built it. It’s important to note the fact that we are biased towards our own accomplishments. It skews our judgments and inhibits us from taking criticism well.

Dan Ariely’s talks never disappoint me! He’s definitely one of my favorite TED talkers 🙂