Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"I'm as honest as the day is long. The longer the daylight the less I do wrong."

Extra blogger-points for the first person to identify the source of the post title.

This material for this post comes from a bit of interesting psychological research passed to me by one of my reliable sources in the psychological-science community. In this study, Chen, Boans and Gino postulate that normal human beings have some sort of subconscious and/or hard-wired propensity to behave less honestly in darker environments than they would in well-lit environments, even when the amount of anonymity is carefully controlled so that it is equal in both settings.

The team created a set of three experiments that required in one case, self reporting of results from a task that paid them a certain amount of money for successful trials in a number finding game, and in another two cases, a decision as to how to split up a fixed sum of money with a person not in the same room. In the number finding game the control room was well lit, and the room of interest was, obviously, not well-lit, (that would be 'dim' for those of us not in the Illuminati). In the latter, so called 'dictator game', some decision makers wore shades, the controls did not.

The results were consistent: In the darker circumstances, the self reports in the number finding tasks were, shall we say, a tad enhanced. Similarly, in the dictator game, the shade-wearing split was at a further remove from 50/50 equitable, in favor of the dictator, than were the unshaded splits.

So, what to conclude? There is something called "illusory anonymity", "that is not proportionate to actual anonymity.." It is switched on in dim circumstances. The darkness 'triggers a fundamental psychological belief that one is protected from other's attention and inspections." This in turn, makes it more likely that one will act in ones self interest, than one would in well lit situations.

One is reminded of kids who close their eyes as they do wrong, thinking that will somehow protect them from getting caught. Better yet, I recall my last trip to the dentist, or should I say, the oral surgeon. At said torture session, I made use of the "close your eyes and it won't seem so bad' stratagem, when it became apparent that multiple shots of Novocaine were not going to do the trick. (Yes, I know. I know. This wasn't a case quite like these cases, but it sure bears a family resemblance.)

The idea seems to be that this sort of reaction to darkness, being independent of the actual level of perceived anonymity, is something subconscious. By use of the term "fundamental psychological belief" I think Chen is trying to get at a notion like this. There is a "belief" or disposition to act as if one is veiled from detection when the light levels are low. Is this subconscious sense of anonymity something that can be shown to be proportional to the level of light, the darkness? That would presumably be the next step in research.

As to the explanation of the genesis of such "fundamental belief", that is determining whether it is hard-wired or in some sense learned, who knows how to go about answering that question?

Practical applications? Make all transactions in very well lit environments, and outlaw shades.

Exit question: Does this mean that those of us who prefer dark beers (Porters and the like) are less honest?