Who Knew That the Slippery Slope Was Real?

Take a look at this picture.

Dan Ariely. Photo: poptech/Flickr, via wired.com.

One thing you might have noticed, if you’ve looked carefully, is that this man appears to have had some reconstructive surgery on the right side of his face and there is a colour difference, which is slightly accentuated by the lack of beard stubble. What if I were to tell you that this man was offered the chance to have fake stubble tattooed onto that section and, when he declined because he felt strange about it, received a higher level of pressure and, in his words, guilt trip than for any other procedure during the extensive time he spent in hospital receiving skin grafts and burn treatments. Why was the doctor pressuring him?

Because he had already performed the tattooing remediation on two people and needed a third for the paper. In Dan’s words, again, the doctor was a fantastic physician, thoughtful, and he cared but he had a conflict of interest that meant that he moved to a different mode of behaviour. For me, I had to look a couple of times because the asymmetry that the doctor referred to is not that apparent at first glance. Yet the doctor felt compelled, by interests that were now Dan’s, to make Dan self-conscious about the perceived problem.

A friend on Facebook (thanks, Bill!) posted a link to an excellent article in Wired, entitled “Why We Lie, Cheat, Go to Prison and Eat Chocolate Cake” by Dan Ariely, the man pictured above. Dan is a professor of behavioural economics and psychology at Duke and his new book explores the reasons that we lie to each other. I was interested in this because I’m always looking for explanations of student behaviour and I want to understand their motivations. I know that my students will rationalise and do some strange things but, if I’m forewarned, maybe I can construct activities and courses in a way that heads this off at the pass.

There were several points of interest to me. The first was the question whether a cost/benefit analysis of dishonesty – do something bad, go to prison – actually has the effect that we intend. As Ariely points out, if you talk to the people who got caught, the long-term outcome of their actions was never something that they thought about. He also discusses the notion of someone taking small steps, a little each time, that move them from law abiding, for want of a better word, to dishonest. Rather than set out to do bad things in one giant leap, people tend to take small steps, rationalising each one, and after each step opening up a range of darker and darker options.

Welcome to the slippery slope – beloved argument of rubicose conservative politicians since time immemorial. Except that, in this case, it appears that the slop is piecewise composed on tiny little steps. Yes, each step requires a decision, so there isn’t the momentum that we commonly associate with the slope, but each step, in some sense, takes you to larger and larger steps away from the honest place from which you started.

Ariely discusses an experiment where he gave two groups designer sunglasses and told one group that they had the real thing, and the other that they had fakes, and then asked them to complete a test and then gave them a chance to cheat. The people who had been randomly assigned into the ‘fake sunglasses’ group cheated more than the others. Now there are many possible reasons for this. One of them is the idea that if you know that are signalling your status deceptively to the world, which is Ariely’s argument, you are in a mindset where you have taken a step towards dishonesty. Cheating a little more is an easier step. I can see many interpretations of this, because of the nature of the cheating which is in reporting how many questions you completed on the test, where self-esteem issues caused by being in the ‘fake’ group may lead to you over-promoting yourself in the reporting of your success on the quiz – but it’s still cheating. Ultimately, whatever is motivating people to take that step, the step appears to be easier if you are already inside the dishonest space, even to a degree.

[Note: Previous paragraph was edited slightly after initial publication due to terrible auto-correcting slipping by me. Thanks, Gary!]

Where does something like copying software or illicitly downloading music come into this? Does this constant reminder of your small, well-rationalised, step into low-level lawlessness have any impact on the other decisions that you make? It’s an interesting question because, according to the outline in Ariely’s sunglasses experiment, we would expect it to be more of a problem if the products became part of your projected image. We know that having developed a systematic technological solution for downloading is the first hurdle in terms of achieving downloads but is it also the first hurdle in making steadily less legitimate decisions? I actually have no idea but would be very interested to see some research in this area. I feel it’s too glib to assume a relationship, because it is so ‘slippery slope’ argument, but Ariely’s work now makes me wonder. Is it possible that, after downloading enough music or software, you could actually rationalise the theft of a car? Especially if you were only ‘borrowing’ it? (Personally, I doubt it because I think that there are several steps in between.) I don’t have a stake in this fight – I have a personal code for behaviour in this sphere that I can live with but I see some benefits in asking and trying to answer these questions from something other that personal experience.

Returning to the article, of particular interest to me was the discussion of an honour code, such as Princeton’s, where students sign a pledge. Ariely sees it as benefit as a reminder to people that is active for some time but, ultimately, would have little value over several years because, as we’ve already discussed, people rationalise in small increments over the short term rather than constructing long-term models where the pledge would make a difference. Sign a pledge in 2012 and it may just not have any impact on you by the middle of 2012, let alone at the end of 2015 when you’re trying to graduate. Potentially, at almost any cost.

In terms of ongoing reminders, and a signature on a piece of work saying (in effect) “I didn’t cheat”, Ariely asks what happens if you have to sign the honour clause after you’ve finished a test – well, if you’ve finished then any cheating has already occurred so the honour clause is useless then. If you remind people at the start of every assignment, every test, and get them to pledge at the beginning then this should have an impact – a halo effect to an extent, or a reminder of expectation that will make it harder for you to rationalise your dishonesty.

In our school we have an electronic submission system that require students to use to submit their assignments. It has boiler plate ‘anti-plagiarism’ text and you must accept the conditions to submit. However, this is your final act before submission and you have already finished the code, which falls immediately into the trap mentioned in the previous paragraph. Dan Ariely’s answers have made me think about how we can change this to make it more of an upfront reminder, rather than an ‘after the fact – oh it may be too late now’ auto-accept at the end of the activity. And, yes, reminder structures and behaviour modifiers in time banking are also being reviewed and added in the light of these new ideas.

The Wired Q&A is very interesting and covers a lot of ground but, realistically, I think I have to go and buy Dan Ariely’s book(s), prepare myself for some harsh reflection and thought, and plan for a long weekend of reading.

One Comment on “Who Knew That the Slippery Slope Was Real?”

  1. Keith Cohen says:

    I’m a big fan of Dan Ariely. His book “predictibly irrational” is a great read. His behavioural economics research is all too understandable in the personal context (“yeah, I’d do that”) but also in the group context; (“So *Thats* why marketing did it that way…!?”). Ariely is often turning marketplace marketing practices and collective economic behaviours without scientific foundation into concrete facts about individual behaviour. Fascinating, but sometimes also disquieting.


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