Most people walk around the world thinking of themselves as pretty good, law-abiding, upstanding citizens. Sure, you might exceed the speed limit every once in a while, but the speed limit is a guideline. You might make a little extra cash helping a friend with something, but not declare that on your income tax. After all, the government isn’t really interested in pocket change.
These kinds of justifications for doing something that violates the law are called moral disengagement. You don’t want to change your self-concept that you are basically a good person, so you take the negative action and make it feel more morally acceptable.
How are you able to pull this off, though? If you break a law or cheat, you really have done something that violates some kind of moral code. Even if you try to describe it as being acceptable, wouldn’t your memory of doing something wrong lead to feelings of guilt? In Edgar Allen Poe’s classic story, The Telltale Heart, a murderer is pursued by the sound of the heart of his victim.
A paper in the March, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Lisa Shu, Francesca Gino, and Max Bazerman suggests that one mechanism that our memory helps with this process of moral disengagement. In particular, when people cheat, they tend to have poor memory for aspects of the situation that might lead to feelings of guilt.
The authors developed a scale to measure people’s overall degree of moral disengagement. It had questions like, “Rules should be flexible enough to be adapted to different situations” that measure whether people want to be bound by strict codes. A preliminary study in the paper found that people using this scale showed higher levels of moral disengagement when they imagined themselves in a situation in which they cheated on an exam than when they imagined themselves with an opportunity to cheat that they did not take.
In an elaborate study, the experimenters gave people a task developed by Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely that provides an experimental setting where people can cheat. Participants are brought together in a large group. They do a series of complicated math problems. Then, they are given an answer key and score their performance. After that, people pay themselves from an envelope of money for each correct answer. Because the room is large and people are paying themselves, and there is no real oversight by the experimenter there is a chance for people to cheat. Mazar, Amir, and Ariely found that people often took more money than they should have in this situation.
Shu, Gino, and Bazerman set up a complex task. Half the people given this task were paid by the experimenter, so they could not cheat. The other half paid themselves, so that they could cheat if they wanted to.
These two groups (no possible cheating vs. potential to cheat) were assigned to one of three other conditions. One group just performed the task. A second group read an honor code that talked about the rights and responsibilities of students before doing the math test. A third group read the honor code and signed it before doing the math test.
So, what happened? The group given the opportunity to cheat took about twice the amount of money they should have. The group that read the honor code took about 50% more money than they should have. The group that read and signed the honor code did not cheat much at all.
People did the moral disengagement scale after the math test. Those who had no opportunity to cheat showed very low levels of moral disengagement overall, though reading the honor code and signing it actually made them feel strongly that they should stick to the rules. When people had the chance to cheat, those who did not read the honor code showed a pretty high level of moral disengagement. That is, they used moral disengagement as a strategy for keeping them from feeling guilty about cheating. Those who just read the honor code, but didn’t sign it also showed a moderate amount of moral disengagement. But, those who signed the honor code showed very low levels of moral disengagement.
At the end of the study, people who read the honor code were asked to recall as many of the items on the honor code as they could. The people who read and signed the honor code remembered a lot of it regardless of whether they had the opportunity to cheat or not. Of interest, the people who just read the honor code remembered much less about it if they had the opportunity to cheat than if they did not.
People read the honor code before they did the math test. So, the difference in memory had to arise from something about cheating. Indeed, those specific individuals who cheated on the test were the ones who showed the worst memory for the items on the honor code. That means that people were systematically suppressing information that might have made them feel guilty about their behavior.
What do these results tell us?
First, the results suggest that people have a finely honed mechanism for helping them to justify cheating. One the one hand, people think about rules being more flexible when they have just cheated. That helps them to view their own behavior as more socially acceptable.
At the same time, people’s memory for the rules (and probably for their own behavior) are worse when they cheated than when they did not. Forgetting the details of the rules helps people to avoid guilt.
That said, there is a hopeful side to these results. The people who read and signed the honor code tended not to cheat. That means that any organization that expresses strong moral norms will promote good behavior by the people in that organization. Cheating need not be the norm.