Saturday, January 15, 2011

Diogenes Shrugged

The world is a difficult place.

(An old physics joke – yes, there is such a thing: First Law of Thermodynamics is “you can’t win”; the Second Law is “you can’t break even.”)

We ourselves are flawed and limited, and those of us not fortunate enough to be megalomaniacs are aware of it. Most of the time we feel outnumbered, outclassed, and (literally and figuratively) outgunned, and with good reason. It is not surprising that we are often are tempted to shorten the odds with dishonesty and to soothe ourselves with hypocrisy.

The reasons for dishonesty are not always – in fact, not usually – monetary. Researchers, who published their results in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology, taped random conversations among people who were interacting purely socially; they found an average of 2.92 lies per person every 10 minutes. Despite the pleasing precision of 2.92, this almost surely was an undercount, since it relied on the chatters themselves admitting to their lies when they reviewed the tapes afterward. The most common motive for a lie was simple social posturing.

Of course, sometimes the reasons are monetary. Experiments with ATMs show that, when they are rigged to give out too much cash, nearly all the recipients keep it, and the few who return the extra money to the bank prove primarily to be concerned about being caught by the security camera. Cheating an ATM is one thing, but what about a real cashier? Richard Wiseman, for a British television show called World in Action, tested this a few years back. Cashiers at a large newsagent (newsstand) were instructed to give change for one note larger than the one they were given by a customer: i.e. if given a 5-pound note, the cashier gave change for a 10; if given a 10-pound note, the cashier gave change for a 20. Every single customer kept the extra money without comment. Afterward the customers were intercepted by a “market researcher” who asked them questions about honesty in politics, business, journalism, and so on. The cash-pocketers continued to hold other people to a high standard of ethics. Similar experiments give similar results around the world. The size of the shop makes a difference. In small mom-and-pop shops, half the customers return the money, but, since customers are less likely to be anonymous in such places, this may be a type of social posturing.

Disheartening? A little, though it is easy to make too much of this. Despite those who claim a moral equivalence between stealing a dollar and stealing a million, the two are not the same. Someone who pockets a fiver really shouldn’t share a cell with Bernie Madoff. Yet, the results should give us pause. If money managers and politicos can benefit themselves on a large scale in the way that those newsstand customers did on a small one, it is likely many will. “Trust but verify,” the old mantra about arms control during the Cold War, has wider applications.

What about all those white lies, hypocrisies, and other economies with the truth we encounter in our daily lives from our friends, lovers, and associates at a rate of at least 2.92 every 10 minutes? When they do little actual damage, maybe we should try to be a little more generous toward the fibbers and their foibles. Glass houses, and all that.


  1. Hmmm, I wonder if I can get a good buy on a Plexiglas house?
    I've got an ad slogan for the house in the picture: A modest home for an immodest homeowner