The following post reflects on Professor Dan Ariely’s Zeitgeist talk (below), and on recent events regarding mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal (Part II).
This talk is fascinating. But the theory that considering one’s morality decreases immorality (in the immediate term) clearly doesn’t apply to Anthony Weiner. It in fact doesn’t apply to many public figures.
So I wonder if, in part, it’s also about the frequency at which our daily lives – personal and professional – require us to take on half-truths and embody roles that require performance. The whole idea here is that people acclimate. We acclimate to systems that implicitly – by flaw of structure – permit cheating. The result of that acclimation is an increased frequency of cheating. But the average person might not be forced to reconcile with their own morality on a daily basis. That ‘reset’ button comes into play when they are – implicitly or explicitly – asked to examine who they are, what they believe and how they have behaved. The average person isn’t often asked those hard-hitting questions about who they are, what they believe, and how they have behaved. The average person doesn’t have to acclimate to these questions in ways that deplete the meaning and reflection behind their response.
Public figures do.
If your life is about selling an image, and about answering hard-hitting questions regarding who you are, what you believe and how you have behaved – on an hourly basis! – then perhaps what you acclimate to is the rote behavior of performing morality without really reflecting on what it means. You can look people in the eye and consider yourself a better father and a better husband even while sexting on the side, because part of your job (or how you’ve conceived of it) is to look people in the eye – every day! – and speak in half-truths and political code. For many public figures, reciting ethics while behaving unethically has become the rule rather than the exception. It’s easy to think of these celebrities and politicians as sociopathic, but in truth, the work of maintaining an image (in a society that demands perfection) absolutely involves the ability to lie without remorse. It’s not about where you start – it’s about the (implied) demands of a job that lead you there regardless.
This is not to excuse bad behavior. It is not to excuse deception. But context is key. We have indeed created a system where truth is asked for but not valued – think of how often we ask the average person to act professionally in ways that go against their fundamental personality. We are asking people to perform, and to become so familiar with their performance that they – and we – mistake it for truth. We are asking for lies and half-truths, and we are okay with them so long as no one bursts the bubble. Multiply this kind of request by a million pairs of judging eyes, and you have an inkling of what it means to be professionally famous. Being in the public eye means performing, and getting completely used to one’s own performance. Just don’t burst the bubble. We won’t forgive you for that.
Context is key. The ‘reset’ button works because these moments of requested reflection happen infrequently. We build tolerance to all types of stimuli – why should moral stimuli be any different? It’s probably naive to believe that asking a politician to discuss his morality will rock his foundation. In all likelihood, he’s been reciting his response often enough and for so long that what you think is a moment of reflection is really – for him – a moment of recitation. One’s context will decide whether speaking about morality actually involves any consideration.
And so, the missing piece – at least in this presentation – is that what it takes to reduce immoral behavior involves systems that can call out our impulses in unpredictable ways, such that every instance we have to reflect interrupts what we have acclimated to doing in the day-to-day. Such that our response involves active thinking rather than rote response. We need to think about society itself (which implicates us all) as creating systems that allow people to acclimate to bold-faced deception. As we (rightfully) tire of Weiner’s hypocrisies and retro-fitted apologies, as we (rightfully) dismiss him from mind and sight, let’s also ponder the larger and tougher questions: How have we, collectively, made it possible and even necessary for public figures to conceal, perform, and lie? In what ways do we imply that we want to be deceived?