Friday, May 4, 2012
Do honest people cheat?
I was raised around barrooms,
Friday night dances
Singin' them old country songs
Half the time endin' up someplace I don't belong
- Delbert McClinton, "Victim of Life's Circumstances"
In criminal law, we punish people because we believe that they made a bad choice. They could have chosen something good, but instead they chose something wrong or forbidden. Similarly, one of the principal purposes of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. Rehabilitative systems try to teach people to make better choices in the future. They try to change the criminal's character and reform her criminal tendencies.
But what if criminality (or honesty) is not a result of a certain type of character? What if people we would normally consider to be "honest people" would commit crimes under the right circumstances? Is there really such a thing as an "honest person?"
There is some disturbing psychological research that indicates that a person's basic character doesn't affect their behavior as much as their circumstances.
In 1928, researchers at Columbia University administered a number of different types of tests to thousands of children. One test was an aptitude test given in two parts. On the first day the students were not given enough time to complete all the answers and were immediately graded. On the second day, the students were given a very similar test with different questions. But they were provided with an answer key and instructed to grade their own tests. As you might expect, a lot of the students cheated.
The surprising result, though, was that some students who cheated on the aptitude tests never cheated on the physical tests. Or they cheated when they had the answer key, but didn't cheat when they did a take-home test. Even more surprising, some students would cheat on a math test, but not on a spelling test. The researchers concluded that most children "will deceive in certain situations but not in others."
Another study by Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business at Notre Dame, shows that a person's mind frame as they prepare for a test profoundly influences whether they will cheat. Tenbrunsel administered a test to two sets of subjects and provided them with an opportunity to cheat. But before she gave the test, she asked one group to think about a business decision and the other group to think about an ethical decision. Each group was to make a mental checklist to address the problem. Then, she administered the test with the cheating opportunity. The group that thought about the business decision was much more likely to cheat than the group that thought about the ethical decision. The subjects' moral upbringing did not effect their decision to cheat.
What does this research mean? For one thing, it means that we probably underestimate the effect our environment has on our behavior. Choosing our environment might be one of the most important decisions we can make.
On the other hand, these studies don't necessarily mean that people completely lack the ability to decide for themselves. A significant group of kids didn't cheat in the 1928 study even when they had the opportunity. And a significant group in the Notre Dame study didn't cheat even though they had been primed to think from a business frame of mind.
If we used to think that individual character accounted for 80% or 90% of the good or bad decisions we make, this research might make us lower that percentage. However much our character affects our decisions, it is an important factor. If we are presented with difficult decisions where we can't control our circumstances, we'll be forced to rely on our character. So, while the criminal justice system needs to acknowledge the impact of environment and circumstance on decision-making, it doesn't make sense to throw free-will out the window. It is still an important factor in what we do.
Posted by Joshua Baron