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What makes us lie and cheat and what we can do about it

Published: Tuesday, March 11 2014 9:45 p.m. MDT

Now, with kids, so you remember of course the marshmallow test. The kids who resist temptation don't just sit there and stare at the marshmallow. They do things. They sit on their hands, they watch the ceiling, they sing a song, they turn around, they do things. That, I think, suggests that … there is training. And Walter Mischel did this very nice experiment in which he asked the kids to think about the marshmallows as clouds, and that basically eliminated the temptation to a large degree.

In general, the ability to resist temptation, I think, is largely will, mostly will, but some of it could be trained, which is incredibly important. As a mother, what do you do to get your kids to think about tricks for temptation? … This notion that we have a central capacity for self-control and that we can learn tricks, we can learn to reframe temptation is very important.

DN: To expand this question, what can universities do to promote and support this attitude of honesty, and moral, rational behavior?

DA: We teach people in the social realm to lie for good reasons, because we care about other people, because we don't want to offend people, we want to be polite. The problem is the business world has different rules. You want your husband to care about your feelings, you don't want your accountant to care about your feelings. In the business world, you want straight answers. The trick with universities is that for them, the overlap between the social realm and the professional realm is almost complete. For most people, you have your social life where some dishonesty is desirable, then you have the business world and the picture is very different. But for the students, when does one stop and when does one start? You sit in an exam next to your best friend, they ask you for an answer, now what should you do? Two principles are contradicting each other, one is friendship which the university promotes … the other one is honesty, which the university also promotes. I think the students have really complex lives, and I don't think we give them really good, clear-cut rules.

What I like about religion is that in many religions, many cases give you clear-cut rules. This is just something you don't do. I'm Jewish and the amount of rules we have is unbelievable. You want to keep the Sabbath, there's a book of what you do, what you can't do. Of course, the rules were written a long time ago, so people interpret them in different ways, but it's clear what you can do and can't do. And you get into the details and by doing that, you basically know at each point if you're on the right side or the wrong side. There's no gray zone, or there's very little gray zone. I think universities don't give enough clear guidelines for the students.

DN: As you start to impose more regulations on someone, as they hear all these moral reminders, do they become desensitized, is there an overload, do they push back?

DA: I'm sure it will depend on how you do it and what kind of meaning you tie to it. So if I said, "You only have to wear blue and khaki and that's it," and I don't give you any reason for that, it would be very tough. One of the things that religion does, it doesn’t just give you a rule, it creates a connection from the rule to the deeper meaning. … If you have to rely on people to make the right decision every time based on cost-benefit analysis, the odds are that people will fail and fail often. But if we make something a sacred value … it's linked to a whole set of things. So I think an honor code has to be linked to that.

DN: You study a lot of people who make irrational decisions, who lie, who cheat. How has this affected your faith in humanity?

DA: It's not just lying and cheating. All of my research is about human stupidity. In some ways, behavioral economics is sad. You can say if you think people are able, capable, wonderful and so on. That's a beautiful view of human nature. For me, I think people are myopic and vindictive, and don't know what they're doing, and foolish and wasteful, so on. But the way I find solace is that … if you believe people are perfectly rational, you would look at the world and you would say "That's an outcome of 8 billion rational people and that's the best we can do." I say, "This is the outcome of 8 billion irrational people and we can do much better." So it's true that I have a lower faith in human nature, but I have a higher faith in human potential.

And the key is that unlike basically any other animal, we build our world, and we can decide which world we're going to build. So we build the financial markets. Do we want to build them with conflicts of interest or without? We are building restaurants. Do we want to build them with very large portion size and free soft drinks or not? We are building cars and cellphones, do we want texting and driving to be possible? If we're left to our own accord, we'd make bad decisions when tempted, but we can engineer the world to get us to make better decisions.

DN: You're teaching a free Coursera class that begins March 11. What is generally the response from people when they learn about these things. Are they excited to learn about their weaknesses or do they push back against it?

DA: To a large degree, people think about other people's weakness and not their own. I try very hard not to be judgmental. First of all, I readily admit that I make many of these mistakes, that's who we are. … I think that the moment we say, "This is who we are, this is the data, this is our limitation and we're lucky, we can do things differently, so, what do we do?" for me that's the real value. So I don't think people get upset, I think people get energized with the idea that we could do better.

Email: sisraelsen@deseretnews.com

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