Being bad is easy

You no doubt think of yourself as a civilised type… a caring component of the community. Are you really though? Wouldn’t you lie and cheat if you were given the opportunity? New research casts an interesting light on the question.

To test the idea, researchers had subjects take a maths test on a computer. They were told that there were some problems with the system. Half of the subjects were told that due to the problems if they pressed the space bar then the answer to the question would appear on the screen. The other half were told that if they did not press the enter key within five seconds of seeing a question then the answer would appear. The results showed that people in the second group, who did not have to physically press a button to get the answer, were much more likely to cheat.

In another study people were asked whether they would help a student with a learning disability complete a part of the test. Half only had the option of clicking on a “yes” or “no” box that appeared on the computer screen. The other half could follow a link at the bottom of the page to volunteer their help or just press “continue” to move on to the next page of their test. People were five times more likely to volunteer when they had to expressly pick “yes” or “no”. Apparently it is more difficult for people to deny their help by saying “no”, than it is for them to avoid the issue.

The researchers say this indicates that people are more likely to cheat and make immoral decisions if their bad behaviour does not require an explicit action. If people can lie by omission, cheat without effort, or bypass a request without expressly denying it, then they are much more likely to do it. In all, they are saying that we will be bad if it doesn’t require too much effort or confrontation.

William Golding’s point in the The Lord of the Flies is that the veneer of civilisation is very thin on all of us. I might be a bit of a Pollyanna but I would like to believe that we may make occasional choices that don’t reflect our highest values when the consequences are low, but when serious life choices are to be made, then most of us, most of the time, will come from a place of love and connection.

Civilisation might well be a fragile imposition but soul is deep.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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