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When I got up today, the person I saw in the mirror was skinner than he really is, has more hair than he truly does, and is much better looking than his dating success would indicate. Oh, by the way, the person I saw in the mirror also is, on occasion, less ethical then he aspires to be. As to ethics, two studies prove that such a gap between aspiration and reality is true for me and for others. How so?
The context of a situation, not an unchanging moral core, governs how people decide to act. Exhibit A: two new books discussing the scenario dubbed the trolley and the fat man. “Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong” by David Edmonds and “The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge: A Philosophical Conundrum” from Thomas Cathcart.
Question No. 1: You are at a trolley station. A fat man stands in front of you. The trolley is a runaway trolley, and it’s heading toward a group of people on the track who are oblivious to their imminent death. Do you push the fat man on the tracks to stop the trolley? Most everyone says: No way.
Question No. 2: Same scenario, but this time you do not need to push the fat man on the tracks. You only need to pull a lever that redirects the trolley so it kills the fat man, who is standing in front of several innocent people. He dies, and they will live. Most people say they would pull the lever. After all, they are not killing the fat man; they are one step removed from that because of the lever. It’s the same moral dilemma but a different answer.
The second interesting study is discussed in an article in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review, “In the Afternoon, the Moral Slope Gets Slipperier.” The setup is simple. If study subjects lie in response to certain questions, they’ll earn more money than if they tell the truth. The question under investigation: Does the time of day when temptation presents itself matter?
Yes, according to the study. Of the study subjects, 43 percent lie in the morning, but a whopping 65 percent do so in the afternoon. Why?
The researchers argue that, after a hard day at work, the subjects experience “cognitive depletion.” Making decisions all day wears them out, leaving them with fewer defenses to guard against temptation. So, perhaps an afternoon siesta to restore depleted cognitive energy is not such a bad idea.
So, how do we make moral decisions? Dan Ariely, while at M.I.T, ran an interesting experiment he describes in his book, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.”
Two groups of subjects take the same test, which is designed so that one group is able to cheat but the other is not. A modest amount of money is at stake. The group that can cheat does cheat.
But he takes a third group and has them write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they can remember. Only then does he tell them about the test. This group will be able to cheat.
Do they? No. They are like the group that was unable to cheat.
His conclusion: Constant, timely reminders of moral obligations make people more moral and honest. Again, it is all about context. We are not born bad or good, but we can create environments that bring out our best.