Monday, September 24, 2012

Stealing pencils & a mortgage crisis: the same mental processes lead to both

The findings that behavioral economist Dan Ariely uncovered on dishonesty, engagingly illustrated in this animated presentation, have massive implications, both on a personal and political level. The examples range from rationalizing stealing pencils from the office to the causes of the worldwide economic meltdown. Now if we could just ingrain more reality checks/checks and balances!


Watching this reminds me of an observation Rachel Maddow made to David Letterman, that the polarization of the country as seen in the strong identification with either the Democratic and Republican party is akin to the fierce loyalty felt toward sports teams. Not much room for dialogue there! (Ironic coda: Ariely's book is a hot illegal download.)
Further reading: Obamanomics: How Bottom-Up Economic Prosperity Will Replace Trickle-Down Economics; The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, by Alan Greenspan; An Introduction to Social Psychology.

10 comments:

  1. Where to begin? The first victim of a lie is oneself. If you are honest to yourself, you'll probably be all right.
    Mr. Ariely agrees with Mencius in that all men are basically good. But what is good in one's own eyes, and what is merely beneficial to society, form a moral battleground that has occupied philosophers for ages.
    I know people who will carry litter in their pockets if the surroundings are clean, but will toss litter freely if the place they are in is unswept. This maybe akin to his idea of people wanting to do well after confession.
    As to his theory on pencils-- the company has already invested in pencils and in employees. If one uses the other, all is as it's meant to be. Which is why some of you are reading this on a work computer. Ego te absolvum.
    All this discussion is irrelevant if you are a sociopath, like my brother.
    But I digress.

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    1. It's hard to be scrupulous, but I guess we must do our best. How to imprint the message that in the long run being wasteful and selfish is bad for us personally as well as as a society?
      Sociopaths are really, really scary. You have my sympathy.

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    2. The key lies in making wise laws and applying them evenly--a more difficult thing than it sounds. Even an intelligent sociopath will refrain from an act that will cost more than it gratifies. But so much of behavior is regulated only by one's own conscience. The absence of one makes behavior modification impossible.
      Thanks for a fascinating post.

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  2. Dan Ariely's work has always fascinated me. I heard him interviewed by Diane Rehm recently, where he discussed his study of "fudging" the number of questions a participant got right when the reward was not immediately monetary. For example, if it was questions for dollars, they were more likely to be closer to honest, but if it was questions for tokens then for dollars, they were much more likely to fudge the numbers. I guess morality is blurred when the reward and/or moral lines are not as clear.

    His book The Upside of Irrationality that Daedalus used to carry was also a very interesting look at why we act the way we do. Not necessarily in relation to lying or cheating, but he went into a variety of topics - including dating! One tidbit that's helpful for almost every situation, he studied the way people reacted to customer service situations where they were filing a complaint. Regardless of the end result in resolving the complaint, the attitude, apologies, and verbal tone of the person responding made all the difference in how happy the complainant was afterwards.

    I want to be Dan Ariely, or perhaps just one of his research assistants.

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    1. Also, just a general shout-out to Rachel Maddow for being awesome. I would also like to be one of her assistants.

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    2. I now want to read Dan Ariely, very interesting stuff Molly!!!!

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    3. Thanks so much for your additional observations on Ariely. I think it's so valuable what you said about the benefits of solicitude and courtesy. People need to be heard and respected!

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  3. Heady stuff, Gleaners!! Any mention of Maddow and I'm glued...

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  4. The rah-rah aspect of political theater is the most depressing sight in a Presidential election year.

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