Is Honesty A Conscious Decision?
Introduction (Via Seed Magazine & Situationist)
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.
Key Issue (Via Seed Magazine & Situationist):
Greene and Paxton have just published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that attempts to get at the subconscious underpinnings of morality by recording subjects’ brain activity as they make a decision to lie. Under the fMRI, subjects were asked to predict the result of a coin toss and were allowed to keep their predictions to themselves until after the coin fell, giving them a chance to lie. As motivation, they were paid for correct predictions. For comparison, the researchers ran tests in which they asked subjects to reveal their predictions before the coin toss. The scientists then analyzed the subjects’ success rates using statistics: The dishonest were identified as those who guessed the results of the coin toss more times than chance would dictate.
Greene and Paxton had hypothesized that if deciding to be honest is a conscious process—the result of resisting temptation—the areas of the brain associated with self-control and critical thinking would light up when subjects told the truth. If it is automatic, those areas would remain dark.
What they found is that honesty is an automatic process—but only for some people. Comparing scans from tests with and without the opportunity to cheat, the scientists found that for honest subjects, deciding to be honest took no extra brain activity. But for others, the dishonest group, both deciding to lie and deciding to tell the truth required extra activity in the areas of the brain associated with critical thinking and self-control.
Additional Excerpt (Via Seed Magazine)
Their findings—that honesty is automatic for some people—is part of a growing body of work that shows that many, if not most, of our daily actions are not under our conscious control. According to John Bargh, a Yale social psychologist who studies automaticity, even our higher mental processes, ranging from persistence at an activity to social stereotyping to stopping to help a person in need, are performed unconsciously in response to environmental cues. And Jon Haidt of the University of Virginia has found through numerous studies that we make some moral judgments, like those involved in the trolley problem, based entirely on our emotions and are unable to explain logically why some things are right and others wrong.