People are Selfish

If you have even remotely been following my blog, which I admit you probably shouldn’t be doing, you’d know that I am kind of obsessed with Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty [1]. Well, this book has a way of making me think for myself. Every passage, every word, every letter [2] I find myself analyzing the author’s words and thinking about possible flaws or counterarguments. While doing this, I am able to understand the material better. It is really magnificent.

Of course, this is no text book, but rather a summary of fantastic research findings. Nonetheless, having never taken a psychology course, I find this book to be both very interesting and very informative.

One of the final arguments that Ariely makes is one that struck me as a little off, however. He claims that people cheat in excess whenever they know that their cheating behavior will be completely altruistic – It only helps others [3]. Here is a direct excerpt:

I think that when both we and another person stand to benefit from our dishonesty, we operate out of a mix of selfish and altruistic motives. In contrast, when other people, and only other people, stand to benefit from our cheating, we find it far easier to rationalize our bad behavior in truly altruistic ways and subsequently we further relax our moral inhibitions.

To be clear, I do not disagree with the argument that Ariely makes. I very much believe that altruistic actions are more susceptible to cheating than most other actions. I have, for instance, seen many students throughout my education career blatantly cheat and give others answers, but feel no guilt because it is only benefiting someone else. I disagree, however, with how Ariely came to that conclusion.

Basically, the experiment was set up in a way where two people had to each complete a task wherein they would be rewarded for their reported performance. How is this performance calculated? The other person in the “group” would report your score. What Ariely found was that people overstated the performance of their group members by a large amount, thus indicating that they were willing to cheat for altruistic reasons.

Although this may seem correct on the surface, I believe that there is a different motive behind this course of action. Since after member A reports member B’s performance, member B reports member A’s performance in much the same way, there may be a selfish incentive for member A to overstate the performance of member B. This is mainly playing off of guilt.

You know that feeling when you get a large birthday gift from someone you don’t really know? Great. Now you have to buy them a large birthday gift in return. It’s the same principle. Member A knows that by blatantly overstating member B’s score, member B will, in turn, overstate member A’s score. Thus, it may be that one member is acting altruistically. However, I believe that it is even more likely that the member is acting in their own personal interest — guaranteeing that they will have a higher performance by acting in an altruistic manner.

In order to better test whether or not people act altruistically, the performance reporting section of the task may be arranged in such a way that neither member of the group gets to see how the other member reported performance. In this way, there will be no guarantee that by reporting “altruistically” is also beneficial to the reporter. [4]

Again, I’m not pointing out that Ariely’s argument is incorrect, but rather that there is more than one way to interpret the results of this particular experiment. Interpreting the results in this way may lead one to believe that people are not altruistic cheaters, but rather selfish cheaters.

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1. Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. New York: Harper Perennial, 2012. Print.
2. okay maybe not so much every letter
3. Ariely, 232
4. Of course, it may be true that this is indeed the way that Ariely implemented the experiment. He did not mention much of the specifics of the experiment in the text, which leaves room for skepticism.

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