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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 20-Jul-12


Friday 20-July-12

Cheating, criminalizing and confession

I recently went to the RSA to a talk by Dan Ariely about how people cheat and lie. The answer, according to much research, is 'a bit'. Almost all people break the law in small ways, and not big ways. A couple of classic examples is in driving faster than the legal speed limit and stealing office supplies (when he mentioned this, a nervous laugh rippled across the room).

So what happens in our minds when we cheat? Do we feel guilty and declare ourselves to be bad people? Of course not. We do feel a bit uncomfortable when our actions and law-abiding self-image conflicts, so we justify our illegal actions by telling ourselves stories such as 'I need it', 'they won't miss it' or 'I'm in a hurry'. Most of all, we contrast our actions with really bad crimes and conclude that because we are only breaking law 'just a bit', we are much closer to good than we are to bad. And being approximately good is good enough for most of us.

A little rule-breaking is also fun. We get a bit of a buzz from over-stepping the mark that others have laid. It asserts our independence, showing we are in control of our own lives. But what can happen is that we get so good at persuading ourselves that a little rule-breaking becomes normal and the buzz fades. This is a danger point as we may break more rules or break the same ones more severely in order to bring back the buzz (and often, if we can admit it, satisfy a certain greed).

And so the slippery slope continues until the most dangerous point of all, where we effectively acknowledge that we are now hardened criminals and give up the pretence of goodness. This appears where we know that we are hurting or significantly endangering others, yet still carry on regardless. If caught, we blame others, including the victims, but never ourselves. To save our skin we would lie through our teeth and let others take the rap.

This can be seen with young people who go off the tracks at an early age and then tip into hardened criminality, typically in their early teens when they are trying to grow up and where their role models are criminalized older children or adults. Social workers may try to 'save' them by removing them from the criminalizing influences, though they are not always successful.

Of course few people go this far, but for those that do, it is often a point of no return. A characteristic of tipping points, based in catastrophe theory, is that 'going over the edge' is like falling off a cliff: the way back is long and arduous and few even attempt it.

Dan Ariely made an interesting point when talking about research with Catholics, who generally cheat as much as anyone. What does help is that confession acts not so much to prevent the minor cheating, but does give a way back from the edge. When people are approaching serious criminality, or even have reached it, then an abject confession can literally save them, restoring their rule-breaking norm to 'acceptable' minor transgressions rather than hardened criminality.

A later thought: I had a difference of opinion earlier in the year with the head of the schools inspectorate, who declared an affinity for extrinsic motivation. So does extrinsic motivation lead to more cheating? Ariely's work has already shown that bankers, with their big, extrinsic bonuses, are twice as likely to cheat as politicians. Is the same principle happening in schools? Is the pressure for results leading to malpractice? It would seem quite possible and I have had conversations with teachers who noted questionable practices, more often then not instigated or tacitly encouraged by senior staff.

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