Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Cheating and Consumerism: Well at least I Haven’t Murdered Anyone, Right?

What’s your ‘personal fudge factor’? Whatever it is you’re probably happy with it, otherwise you’d instinctively make it smaller. At least, this is my interpretation of the behavioural trait which Dan Ariely suggested following his experiments on dishonesty.

The ‘personal fudge factor’ is the term he uses to refer to the little bit of cheating that we allow ourselves to commit, or the limit that we impose on our dishonesty in order for us to still be able to look in the mirror and feel like a good person. Furthermore, it seems we can be quite devious with our means of rationalising immoral behaviour so that it slips ‘under the radar’, i.e. our own radar, and we can retain a positive perception of ourselves.

Unfortunately however, this behaviour can become dangerous, as when a large number of people are engaged in a potentially harmful activity then the cumulative effect of all these little bits of cheating and dishonesty can be highly destructive.

So there is an obvious question to be asked: why do we allow ourselves these ‘fudge factors’ at all? Is it part of our nature, a product of some aspect of our culture, or a combination of both?
First, it’s possible to examine this question from an evolutionary perspective by considering the following quote made famous by David Wilson and Edward Wilson:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.

In other words, on the one hand it’s advantageous for people to cooperate and behave altruistically within their group as it makes the group stronger, but it’s often of individual benefit (at least in an immediate sense) to behave selfishly. As a result of this —and whether you believe in group selection or not (see Steven Pinker’s essay for compelling arguments against the theory)— groups containing too many people behaving too selfishly become weakened, and at risk of dying out, unless altruistic behaviour and cooperation can be increased.

Clearly however, this mechanism is faced with some problems in the hugely complex interwoven society we now live in. In particular, the breakdown of strong communities in much of the West makes it very difficult to define one’s own group. This is summarised well by Jonathan Haidt, who likens us to lost, confused bees frantically buzzing around trying to find our hive. Left in the aftermath of this cultural shift appears to be an overwhelmingly individualistic society, and it seems to me that we are now in a situation where ‘selfishness beats altruism, and groups rarely exist.’ In this case is it at all surprising that we allow ourselves to cheat a little to get out ahead?

On the other hand, a more encouraging outcome of this connectedness of the world’s population is that a vast number of us appear to consider the whole of humanity, or even all sentient beings, as our ‘group’. The existence of charities for global development and animal welfare offer strong evidence for this.

So if this is the case, why do we still consider the little bits of immorality and dishonesty in our behaviour —i.e. our personal fudge factors— to be acceptable when they accumulate to cause such extensive harm in the world?

Clearly there are a number of explanations for this, such as the separation of our behaviour from its impacts in both space and time, and our knack for ‘moral self licensing’ (see my first post). But could there be other aspects of our culture that act as catalysts for our personal fudge factors?
I’m going to suggest one potential factor that I think maybe of some significance here, namely the media.

Take the Daily Mail Online as an example: on any given day of the week the front page will be overflowing with reports of murder, rape, and corruption, and a general message that all the world’s problems are due to these few villains scattered around the globe. Manmade Climate change seems to be perhaps the only example of a major issue for which the mainstream media regularly tells us that we’re all partially responsible for (although the Daily Mail don’t join in with this as they have their own way of interpreting the science).

This focus on major crimes gives a highly unbalanced view of the world, potentially shifting our moral frame of reference allowing us to more easily excuse our own seemingly insignificant sins.
After all, surely if we can look into our computers and televisions and see murderers, rapists, and other villains blamed for most of the world’s problems this makes it easier for us to look into the mirror and feel good about ourselves, even if we do knowingly play our small parts in an exploitative society? 

Now this may not be a proper real world example, but in contrast to the view painted by the media, Dan Ariely’s researchers found that the cumulative impact of the large number of people who permitted themselves a small, limited amount of cheating was far greater than the impact of the very few ‘bad apples’ they encountered in their sample groups of people, i.e. the 0.6% of people who they observed to cheat as much as the test allowed.

It seems to me that if we want to regard the whole of humanity (or even all sentient beings) as our ‘group’ —and I desperately hope that we do— then we need to recognise that the cumulative effect of all our little bits of cheating and immorality can very often cause more destruction than the acts of the few ‘villains’. If we can’t succeed in this then the world may well be preserved in its tragically unjust social state, and on its course of environmental destruction.

Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely, The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance
David Wilson and Edward Wilson. Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology


Gilli said...

This had got me thinking are we facing a 'tragedy of the moral commons'?
I would argue we are all entitled to (perhaps even need) some small fudge factor for preservation of sanity, otherwise we would spend our lives considering the complexities of every little action, concluding responsibility for suffering yet not understanding how to repent leading to an internal suffering of our own.
So, that on mind, we all accept these indiscretions as part of society, which allows it on a whole to be more altruistic. When some members use a larger fudge factor, and gain from doing so, others are also encouraged to. This leaves less space on the 'moral commons' for altruism. Basically I think I'm suggesting the commons as being altruism and the grazing cattle as the selfish fudge factors?

Joel M-H said...

Thats an interesting way to look at it - maybe if society were still split into small distinct groups more clearly competing with each, than a 'tragedy of the moral commons' would be less likely to happen, as those groups heading down that road would disadvantage themselves, and if we indulged ourselves on the fudge factors (grazing cattle) then we'd more accountable for our actions in smaller groups?

CrowJake said...

Nice to find your blog Joel! Good work... I take issue with almost everything but that's me! Let me indulge you!

With this blog entry I don't agree... I don't think we've gone from groups to individuals... I think we're in a different stage completely. "Networking" might be a buzzword, but it's the prevalent theory used by people, and discussed in order for them to get ahead. It's very different from survival of the fittest, and it's very different from "lets all help each-other in this closed yet oppressive community".

It poses it's own problems, begs for it's own solutions... I don't think a return to tribalism would have been any good for industrial capitalism, and I don't think the begging of a greater shared identity now, in whatever form of capitalism we currently occupy, is in any way productive.

Our technological and cultural context right now means that we have capacity for organising absolutely huge group identities... and rather than being self sufficient co-operatives, they are most often players in a global politics. In the 20th century we found the fruition the nation state. The response to the breakdown of public spirit, as was blamed for economic hardship in germany for example, led to the advent of the same kind of "group spirit" and response to individualism you call for but became nationalism, fascism. The likes of which we had never seen, but turned out pretty damn ugly!

Now we may be getting closer to a position where the limits to how much of a large group may have shifted. I don't think we're anywhere near dominating a global population (too many people benefit from its division)... but calling for an (inter)nationalism is risky as hell. Not least because the enemy of this would be communities who resist identification with this 'whole'. As with old-school nationalism.

I don't think we're experiencing a moral decay... people are just experiencing a rapidly changing organisation of power around them, forces almost beyond our control have such a dominance over our cultural pallet, and we're yet to learn how to properly resist and overcome it.

CrowJake said...

ps this is jacob