Why are we so dishonest? Why do we bad things, even when we know we’re doing something bad? Ever since Adam and Eve ate that apple, we’ve assumed that there is something inherently tempting about sin. If left to our own devices, we’d all turn into men at a Vegas bachelor party, indulging in sex, drugs and slot machines. We’d loot and pillage and lie. Immorality feels good, which is why it’s so hard being moral.
Some people, of course, are made of stronger stuff, which is why they stay on the righteous path. Because they’re better than us, they don’t eat too much cake or cheat on their taxes. (Eternal heaven is their reward for avoiding such sins.) There is good and there is bad, and being good is about resisting the allure of the bad. It’s about not listening to the snake, telling us to eat the forbidden fruit.
If only morality were so easy! A new paper demonstrates, once again, that the human brain is the ultimate category buster, blurring the lines of good and bad, black and white, until everything is gray. The reason is that our behavior is deeply contextual, profoundly influenced by our surroundings and immediate situations. Whether or not we’re able to resist sin, then, might depend more on the details of the sin – and whether or not it triggers our automatic urges – then on the strength of our moral fiber.
That, at least, is the tentative conclusion of a clever new fMRI study by Joshua Greene and Joe Paxton at Harvard University, who argue that sometimes we do the right thing because the wrong thing simply isn’t tempting, even if it leaves us better off. Consider a hypothetical wallet, stuffed full of cash, which you find on the subway. Our moral intuitions (influenced by Genesis) tell us that everyone wants to take the money and run, that we’re all attracted by the possibility of unearned cash. But this latest study suggests that, at least for the people who take the wallet to the police, there is no temptation to resist. They don’t steal because they don’t want to steal; telling the truth isn’t hard work. They are living, in other words, in a state of moral grace, at least when it comes to the wallet. (Interestingly, Greene and Paxton found that people who behaved dishonestly in the experiment exhibited more activity in brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex, associated with self-control. In other words, they might be trying harder to resist, but it’s doing no good.) Here’s Piercarlo Valdesolo, describing the study in Mind Matters:
Greene and Paxton were interested in why people behave honestly when confronted with the opportunity to anonymously cheat for personal gain. They considered two possible explanations. First, there is the “Will” hypothesis: in order to behave honestly people must actively resist the temptation to cheat. In other words, returning the wallet depends on your ability to stifle your desire to take the cash and buy yourself something nice. Alternatively, there is the “Grace” hypothesis: honest behavior results from the absence of temptation. Returning the wallet requires no particular ability to control your treacherous urges – the urge simply isn’t there.
These two hypotheses make competing predictions regarding the brain regions activated when acting honestly as well as the time it should take participants to decide to act honestly. If “Will” is correct then people who choose to act honestly should exhibit heightened activity in brain regions responsible for cognitive control (presumably resulting from the struggle to ignore immediate desires). But if “Grace” is right then no such increase should occur. Furthermore, people should take a longer time to decide to act honestly if doing so requires a conscious act of “Will,” but a relatively shorter time to act if all you need is a bit of “Grace.”
In order to test these possibilities the researchers measured neural activity in an fMRI machine while participants played a computerized game wherein they could gain money by predicting the outcome of coin flips. Correctly guess heads or tails, you get some cash. In one condition, participants recorded their predictions before seeing any of the flips, precluding the opportunity to cheat. In the other condition, participants were rewarded based on self-reported accuracy after the flips, and therefore could fudge their predictions in accordance with the outcome of the flip. I got 100 percent correct, Mr. Experimenter, must be my lucky day!
Consistent with the “Grace” hypothesis, those who acted honestly (who guessed wrong and self-reported as much) showed no increased activity in control-related areas relative to others who guessed wrong but did not have the opportunity to cheat. Honest reporting of scores, then, didn’t require will-power, these participants simply did not feel the urge to cheat. Reaction time data further supported “Grace” showing that participants who acted honestly took no longer to do so, on average, when they had the opportunity to cheat than when they did not.
Why might such a state of temporary moral grace exist? The answer returns us to evolution, and to our history as social primates. One possibility is that we come pre-programmed for certain kinds of ethical behavior, as it might be more important to have an honest reputation within the group than to have a few extra dollars. And so we return the wallet, not because we’ve triumphed over our sinful urges but because, at least on this one subway ride, the urge did not exist. It will be interesting to conduct some follow-up studies, and see if it’s possible to induce this state of grace in strangers. How can we make people think about their social reputation, and not the cash? We’re so concerned about our credit history, but what about our virtue history?