Sunday, August 23, 2009

Coffee Break: The truth about lies

Is being honest a conscious decision at all? A new study tackles this truth about ethics in society.

Veronique Greenwood in Seed Magazine:

In a famous set of experiments in the 1970s, children were observed trick-or-treating in the suburbs. Some were asked their names and addresses upon arriving at a door, while some were asked nothing. All were instructed to take just one piece of candy from the bowl, but as soon as the owner of the home retreated into the kitchen, the children who hadn’t provided their names and addresses shoveled the candy into their bags, sometimes taking everything in the bowl. Psychologists posited that anonymity made the children feel safe from the repercussions of their actions, an effect they call deindividuation.

Moral psychologists have since constructed myriad experiments to probe the workings of human morality, studying how we decide to cheat or to play by the rules, to lie or to tell the truth. And the results can be surprising, even disturbing. For instance, we have based our society on the assumption that deciding to lie or to tell the truth is within our conscious control. But Harvard’s Joshua Greene and Joseph Paxton say this assumption may be flawed and are probing whether honesty may instead be the result of controlling a desire to lie (a conscious process) or of not feeling the temptation to lie in the first place (an automatic process). “When we are honest, are we honest because we actively force ourselves to be? Or are we honest because it flows naturally?” Greene asks.