Honesty, Wallets and Humanism

A research paper appearing at the beginning of July this year (2019) in the American Academy of Science magazine, a magazine called, with creative flair, ‘Science’, reports an international experiment into our honesty.  It says in the introduction:
… Economic models based on rational self-interest suggest that, all else being equal, honest behaviour will become less common as the material incentives for dishonesty increase. Models of human behaviour that incorporate altruistic or other self-regarding preferences also predict that dishonesty will rise with increasing incentives, as self-interest virtually always dominates over concerns for the welfare of others - we care about others but not as much as we care about ourselves. As a result, self-interest will play an increasingly prominent role in behaviour as the material incentives for dishonesty grow. Psychological models based on self-image maintenance, however, predict that people will cheat for profit but only so long as their behaviour does not require them to negatively update their self-concept.  However, it is unclear, without evidence, whether self-image concerns will become more or less important as the incentives for dishonesty increase and also what form that relationship will take.
In other words, even if I will not be caught, does being able to continue to think of myself as an upright citizen, and not a thief, outweigh the benefit of nicking the cash?

Well, we now have at least a partial answer.  The experimenters, armed with currencies from 40 countries, visited 355 cities and handed in a total of 17,303 wallets. They went to the largest cities in a country, with roughly 400 observations per country. Wallets which the researchers had supposedly found in the street outside were handed in to one of five types of institutions: (i) banks; (ii) theatres, museums etc., (iii) post offices; (iv) hotels; and (v) police stations, courts of law, or other public offices. According to the researchers these institutions serve as useful benchmarks because they are common across countries and typically have a public reception area where they could perform the drop-offs.

The wallets were transparent business card cases, so that the recipients could inspect them without having to physically open the wallet. The only variable was whether the wallet contained money, which they randomly varied to hold either no money or US$13.45.  They used local currencies adjusted according to each country’s purchasing power. Each wallet also contained three identical business cards, a grocery list, and a key. The business cards displayed the ‘owner’s’ name and a unique (valid) email address and fictitious but commonplace male names for each country. Both the grocery list and business cards were written in the country’s local language to indicate that the owner was a resident.  

So what happened?  Well the majority of the wallets which the recipients tried to return - by contacting the e-mail address on the business cards - were those which contained money.  On average, adding money to the wallet increased the likelihood of its being reported from 40% to 51%. Furthermore, although rates of civic honesty varied substantially from country to country – Switzerland was at the top and China at the bottom, with the UK and the USA somewhere in the middle - the absolute increase in honesty when the money was in the wallet was essentially the same in each country.

But although there was greater honesty when the wallets contained money, the researchers wondered if this was because the amount was not large enough to be meaningful. So they ran a “Big Money” version in three countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland). They increased the cash inside the wallet to US$94.15.  Reporting rates in all three countries increased even further. Averaged across the three countries, they increased from 46% where there was no money in the wallet to 61% where there was the $13.45 and reached a remarkable 72% in the Big Money condition.

Further research was carried out to find out if the man in the street or even professional economists would have anticipated these results.  The answer was a resounding ‘No’.  We all think that most people will act in line with our (monetary) self-interest rather than thinking that our psychological well-being may be involved in our decision-making processes. And we probably all think that giving in to this self-interest would be wrong and should be resisted - at least by others!

And so I come onto the small matter that I am apparently at most 79% Humanist.  The Humanist Society promotes the idea of Humanism as a non-religious equivalent of religion. Their members are nice people who get together to have naming ceremonies for their new-born children and offer celebrants for humanist weddings and humanist funerals. They also promote things like changes in the law to permit physician assisted dying and the addition of humanism to the school syllabus.  And their current president is the rather attractive Professor Alice Roberts, which obviously affects my opinion not at all.  On their web-site, there is a test to find out how much your thinking corresponds with the aims of the Society.  I could have been even less of a Humanist if I had answered all the questions in a way which reflected my actual views, as opposed to what I guessed they wanted to hear.  When I answered the quiz questions in line with what I thought were probably their views, I became 100% Humanist. Nice. But there are some oddities in the  wording of the quiz. For instance:
 I am most likely to believe something is true if:
    • It is written in a sacred text.
    • Trustworthy people tell me they've seen evidence that they judge to be        valid.
    • I personally see evidence that I judge to be valid.
    • I feel it in my gut
    • It is told to me by a religious authority.
If we just confine ourselves to the obvious possibilities no’s 2 & 3 then, as I can only choose one, we can immediately see a problem.  Most of my knowledge of the world is based on what others have told me.  How can I decide if I should believe it?  If they are priests, then perhaps not, but if they are scientists following the scientific method, then I shall actually be better off believing them than evidence I obtain from first principles myself.  I do not have the skill nor the centuries to do the science necessary to give me that same knowledge.  So these two questions confuse rather than elucidate. I am though ultimately the one who judges the extent to which I will rely on information I receive, whether directly or from others.  So some combination of 2 & 3?

But the main difference between me and them is that apparently Humanists like to be thought of as being motivated by seeking the general good of mankind rather than just their own good.

I can tell right from wrong by...
    • Picking whatever will work out best for me. No need to worry about others.
    • Thinking for myself about the probable consequences of my actions and their effects on others.
    • Consulting a holy book or listening to a religious leader.
This of course assumes that there is actually a moral right and a wrong, in the absence of a god.  Now I like to think of myself as a ‘nice’ person who, in general, complies with societal norms.  But if I have the chance to benefit at the cost of someone-else, then would I take it? As we have seen with the wallets, if the psychological effect on me would not be to my liking, even if I would gain financially then, at some sub-conscious level I would probably chose otherwise. But that hardly means that I should opt for answer 2 as a statement of how I think. It implies a worthiness and knowledge of my own motivations which I know that deep down none of us really has. The honest answer is no.1, but in answering in that way, we have to bear in mind that what works out best for me can also automatically work out best for others - if I have a normal psychology.  That’s how our psychology has evolved to produce the society in which we live. If I’m a psychopath, of course, then perhaps not so much. 

As we have seen, we go about our lives mainly unaware of our underlying motivations.  We are usually on auto-pilot apparently looking after our own best interests but, unknowingly, at the same time often looking after the interests of others in order to sustain the type of society which will promote our survival. That’s evolution for you.  So then, I don’t think I’m likely to be an ideal candidate for membership of the Humanist Society.  I’m not sufficiently deluded regarding my character.  I’m beginning though to wonder which organisation will actually have me!

Paul Buckingham

10th July 2019
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