Original Sin: The Psychology of Dishonesty

Are lying and cheating instinctive or calculating?

To answer this question, Shaul Shalvi and his colleagues set up an experiment in which volunteers were told that they could earn ten shekels (about $2.50) for each pip of the numeral that they rolled on a die. The volunteers were asked to check the outcome of the roll, to roll the die twice more to satisfy themselves that it was not loaded, and then to report the outcome of the original roll on a computer terminal. Half the volunteers were given no time limit in which to do this, whereas the other half were given a time limit of just 20 seconds.

If the volunteers had been completely honest, the average reported roll would have been 3.5 or thereabouts. The volunteers with just 20 seconds in which to complete the task reported an average roll of 4.6, whereas the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time reported an average roll of just 3.9, an important and statistically significant difference.

Although both groups lied, the group with more time for reflection lied considerably less. This finding was confirmed by a second, similar experiment in which volunteers were asked to roll the die just once and then to report the outcome. Half the volunteers were given no time limit, whereas the other half were given a time limit of just 8 seconds. The volunteers with the 8 second time limit reported an average roll of 4.4, compared to 3.4 for the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time. Note that, in this case, the volunteers with an unlimited amount of time actually told the truth.

These findings strongly suggest that lying and cheating are more instinctive than calculating: if people are given plenty of time to think over a problem, they are far more likely to come up with an honest answer. Or as the philosopher Kierkegaard put it,

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.

Shalvi S, Eldar O, & Bereby-Meyer Y (March 2012): Honesty requires time (and lack of justifications), Psychological Science.

Does True Altruism Exist?

Altruism has been thought of as an ego defense, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as medicine or teaching may be able to permanently push their needs into the background, and so never have to address or even to acknowledge them. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress when this role is suddenly removed from them.

Altruism as an ego defence should be distinguished from true altruism—one being primarily a means to cover up uncomfortable feelings and the other being primarily a means to some external end such as alleviating hunger or poverty. However, many psychologists and philosophers have argued that there is, in fact, no such thing as true altruism. In The Dawn, the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche maintains that that which is erroneously called ‘pity’ is not selfless but variously self-motivated.

Nietzsche is in effect agreeing with Aristotle who in the Rhetoric defines pity as a feeling of pain caused by a painful or destructive evil that befalls one who does not deserve it, and that might well befall us or one of our friends, and, moreover to befall us soon. Aristotle surmises that pity cannot be felt by those with absolutely nothing to lose, nor by those who feel that they are beyond all misfortune.

In an interesting and insightful aside, Aristotle adds that a person feels pity for those who are like him and for those with whom he is acquainted, but not for those who are very closely related to him and for whom he feels as he does for himself. Indeed, says Aristotle, the pitiful should not be confounded with the terrible: a man may weep at the sight of his friend begging, but not at that of his son being led to death.

Altruistic acts are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honor or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if neither of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely on the grounds of circularity— altruistic acts are performed for selfish reasons, therefore they must be performed for selfish reasons. The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining.

Need this imply that Aristotle is incorrect in holding that pity cannot be felt by those with absolutely nothing to lose, or who feel that they are beyond all misfortune? Not necessarily—although an altruistic act is often driven by pity, this need not be the case, and altruism and pity should not be amalgamated and then confounded with each another. Thus, it is perfectly possible for someone lying on his deathbed and at the very brink of death, who is compos mentis and whose reputation is already greatly assured, to gift all or most of his fortune to some deserving cause, not out of pity, which he may or may not be beyond feeling, but simply because he thinks that, all things considered, it is the right thing to do. In fact, this goes to the very heart of ancient virtue, which can be defined as the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. The truly altruistic act is the virtuous act and the virtuous act is, always, the rational act.

Adapted from my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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Why People Are So Often the Opposite of What They Appear

An important method of transforming uncomfortable or unacceptable feelings into something more manageable is ‘reaction formation’, which is the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own.

For example, a man who finds himself attracted to someone of the same sex may cope with the unacceptability of this attraction by over-acting heterosexual: going out for several beers with the boys, speaking in a gruff voice, banging his fists on the counter, whistling at pretty girls (or whatever people do these days), conspicuously engaging in a string of baseless heterosexual relationships, and so on.

Other, classic, examples of reaction formation are the alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence, the rich kid who organizes anti-capitalist rallies, the absent father who occasionally returns with big gestures to spoil and smother his children, and the angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy.

An especially interesting case of reaction formation is that of two people who matter deeply to each other, but who argue all the time to suppress their mutual desire and dependency. Typically, A accepts that B is really important to him, but B does not accept this of A; thus, B initiates arguments so as to help deny those feelings, and A initiates (or participates in) arguments so as to help cope with that denial, that is, to safeguard her ego, vent her anger, and temper her feelings.

Another, rather special, case of reaction formation is the person who hates the group but not the individual members of the group with whom he is personally acquainted; this helps to explain such phenomena as the misogynist who is devoted to his wife or the racist who marries a coloured person.

Behaviour that results from reaction formation can be recognized—or as least suspected—as such on the basis that it tends to have something of a manic edge, that is, it tends to be exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible. More importantly, perhaps, is that the person’s behaviour does not seem to ‘add up’ in the context of his bigger picture, and may therefore appear to be groundless, irrational, or idiosyncratic. In many cases, the behaviour is also dystonic, that is, out of keeping with the person’s ideal self-image, and therefore damaging to his deep-seated goals and ambitions and—ultimately—to his sense of worth and his actual worth.

Adapted from my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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