Monday, January 03, 2011

Say a little prayer

Being able to trust people is important. Yet dishonesty is pervasive. In Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational book he describes this as a tragedy of the commons problem since dishonest people or companies lower the level of trust generally. So what to do?
One simple solution is priming. In a series of experiments, Ariely and co-authors Mazar & Amir had subjects think about the 10 Commandments (the actual commandments & not the movie of the same name) before completing a task and being rewarded for their success where they had the opportunity to cheat. Sure enough they cheated significantly less than the controls. It turns out that there are more than 10 commandments in the 10 commandments since they differ between Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths: only Catholics are required not to covet their neighbours' wives for example.
There is a curious angle to all this since the presence of a monument displaying the 10 commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol (pictured) and also in a Kentucky courthouse generated long-running and heated court battles that reached the US Supreme Court. Whatever about the legal merits of the case (which centers on the separation of church and state and on the freedom of speech) it seems possible from the experimental evidence that the presence of the monument (and similar monuments) might generate more honest behaviour in these important contexts. Wouldn't that be a good thing?


Liam Delaney said...

Not sure about the ten commandments, but I think the evidence that being exposed to the self-interest assumption prior to engaging in cooperative games can have negative effects on outcomes.

There are a couple of studies showing that calling a prisoners' dilemma "the wall street" game markedly decreases contributions compared to calling it "the community game". There are a couple of things going on there but priming is probably part of it.

Kevin Denny said...

Well, I will be returning with an over-sized replica of the Texas monument to be placed in the Geary lobby so we will see.

Liam Delaney said...

It is a good sign that the students there haven't stolen the original one.