Today I watched Dan Ariely’s talk at TED about why people sometimes think it is OK to cheat or steal. As usual, I will leave you the pleasure of watching it yourselves, but I will comment about it with a few of my thoughts:
1. I generally believe in people. I think they can be trusted and that most people mean only good. I know it is a little naïve, and maybe that is why I had a hard time as a lawyer, but this is how I try to live my life. Ariely’s talk made me rethink my basic premise. If we all have a tendency to cheat because of the way we perceive our surroundings, maybe I should not trust people so much. But after thinking about it some more, I decided that although many people have a tendency’s to steal and cheat, this talk actually proves, that they should be trusted. Because that trust begets good behaviour.
2. A few years ago I was working as a research assistant for one of my professors, Dr. Eli Bukspan. Dr. Bukspan was writing an article with Professor Asa Kasher, called “Ethic in Business Corporations: Legal and Moral Consideration“. The article deals with the emergence of ethical codes of conduct in corporations and the legal implications of these codes. I won’t bore you with the legal detail, but surely the research Ariley is presenting in his talk back up the notion that companies will benefit by introducing a code of conduct and by building activities around it. But it also means that this code should not be a lip service but something real that should be used daily in order to remain in the minds of the people. This is where leadership comes into play, but this research surely makes it easier to justify the spending.
3. As a leader you need to be a manifestation of the code. The research Ariely presents leads to the conclusion that even without a formal code, the culture that the leader will create in his company may have a big effect on employees’ tendency to steal and cheat. I think the relationship of an employee to his leader/manager can be as powerful as the Ten Commandments or swearing on the bible in Ariely’s examples.
4. This makes even more sense when you take into account the effect of socialization on the tendency to cheat. As Ariely shows, if someone from “our” group is doing it, we tend to do it to. The leaders and managers have a symbolic role in this regard. They should set the tone for who “we” are and how “we” act.
5. The last point is wider. If we have a tendency to cheat when we see others cheating than what does that mean about society as a whole? Every corruption we hear about in the news is devastating because it has ripple effects. If that guy did it, how did he influence others around him? What are the moral implications? In his TED talk, Larry Lessig talks about the fact he is afraid that our children are living in a world that makes them into violators of the law all the time. He says that this will have an effect on the way the precise the law. Lessig talks about copyright laws, but I think there is a bigger point here. In modern society we have so many laws that are not enforced. What are the implications of every law that is not enforced? If we take Ariely’s point of view – the ripple effects should be disastrous. It becomes OK not the follow the law. As a society we should fear that. I would personally like to see less laws and more enforcement in the lines of the “Broken Windows Theory“.