Photo: jetheriot via flickr
Most people are programmed to think that stealing money is bad, but when certain items aren’t directly associated with money — such as Coca-Colas in the communal fridge or pens from work — taking it doesn’t seem like such a egregious crime.In order to test “what
kinds of situations and interventions might further loosen people’s moral standards” for his newest book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves,” Duke researcher Dan Ariely placed either six packs of Coca-Colas or paper plates with six $1 bills in numerous communal refrigerators throughout MIT. Within 72 hours, all of the Cokes were gone, but none of the students had touched the money.
Ariely notes that this could very well be because students are used to seeing sodas in the fridge, so taking it — even if it’s not theirs — doesn’t seem so immoral, but the actual presence of money is out of place so every action associated with it may seem wrong altogether.
In another experiment, Ariely found that if money is one step removed from a direct transaction, people are twice as likely to lie. For example, if you receive tokens — like you do in casinos — you will be more willing to cheat than if you directly received cash during those situations, even though those tokens represent cash and will later be traded in for it.
Furthermore, this explains why many white-collar criminals don’t classify their actions as crimes — lying about numbers that ultimately represent money, but isn’t actually money doesn’t trigger people’s moral values as sternly.
Ariely says that this way of thinking could become a problem in the future “the more cashless our society becomes,” because the separation that the immoral act has to actual money “might also separate us from the reality of our actions to some degree.” He writes:
“If being one step removed from money liberates people from their moral shackles, what will happen as more and more banking is done online? What will happen to out personal and social morality as financial products become more obscure and less recognisably related to money (think, for example, about stock options, derivatives, and credit default swaps)?
“The good news is that once we understand how our dishonesty increases when we are one or more steps removed from money, we can try to clarify adn emphasise the links between our actions and the people they can affect.”
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