With the country’s attention drawn to Lance Armstrong’s long-anticipated confession of doping and his interview with Oprah Winfrey, I was wondering if there might be a lesson in this for us regular folk.
I was curious about the larger issues of morality and character, and was hopeful that something positive might come out of this latest instance of a hero failing us. And goodness knows there's been no shortage of them lately, from once-respected financiers to baseball players to that bumper crop of "govs gone wild."
So I reached out to Dr. David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of the recent book Out of Character. At his lab, The Social Emotions Group, he and his colleagues run experiments about cheating, lying and ethics, so if anyone might be able to offer some insight and positive words, I figured, it would be DeSteno.
Before we judge Armstrong too harshly, he told me, we need to realize that 90 percent of us would cheat if we felt the short-term gain offset the potential long-term loss. “A lot of human morality lies in trying to balance those two,” DeSteno says. “In Armstrong’s case, the immediate benefit of taking performance-enhancing drugs was worth it, especially since he didn’t feel he’d get caught.”
And once we start getting away with things, DeSteno notes, we’re likely to repeat them — again and again. The more powerful a person is, the “freer” he or she feels to behave unethically. While age isn’t a factor per se, it is correlated with power. Also, as we get older, the differential between the short and the long term becomes smaller, thus making the cheating slope potentially a little more slippery for boomers.
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Our Moral Double Standard
When a paradigm of virtue — or at least of excellence — like Armstrong disgraces himself, DeSteno says, we’re surprised, and we assume there’s something morally bereft about them. “But all of us have the same likelihood to fall prey to these things,” he says.
In one experiment at the Social Emotions Group, volunteers are put in a private room and asked to flip a coin to determine whether they will have to perform a lengthy, difficult task or an easy one, and the next volunteer will have to do the other one. As observed on a hidden video-camera, a full 90 percent either don’t toss the coin or continue flipping it until they get the desired result.
DeSteno says, “If we ask them about their behavior afterward, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I was fair.’ And if we tell them we know what they did, they justify their behavior — ‘I was in a bigger rush than the next guy.’ But when they watch a video of an actor doing the same thing, they’ll condemn him for it. Interestingly, when we don’t give them time to defend their action, they’ll tell us what they did was wrong.”
So does this mean we’re all immoral? “Not at all,” DeSteno insists. “It means that our moral behavior is more variable than we think. Some of us are on average more ethical than others. But our idea of character is flawed. If you assume that just because you’ve been ‘good’ your willpower will never fail, you are wrong.”
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How to Become a More Moral Person
The most fundamental drive in humans is to survive, which in evolutionary terms means successfully propagating, DeSteno says. So ultimately we cheat because on some unconscious level we believe it will increase our power or resources and better enable us to propagate. But we have an equally strong “moral sentiment” — call it our conscience — which leads us to do the right thing. If we can cultivate that instinct and learn to trust it and act on it, we won’t be as dependent on our willpower (or religious values), which aren’t infallible.
DeSteno offers four suggestions for getting more moral fiber into your daily diet.
- Keep an “ethics log.” For two weeks, note actions you are proud of or embarrassed by — even the minor things, like “I helped someone cross the street” or “I spoke harshly to my colleague.” This will help you see the variability in your own moral behavior.
- Pay attention to “emotional nudges.” When you have an emotional reaction to something, don’t ignore it. Stop and pay attention to feelings of gratitude, compassion, envy, jealousy and bigotry. Why are you feeling this way? Don’t assume feelings are always selfish. It can be OK to act on them. And by paying more attention, we can get better at following our good instincts.
- Keep a “gratitude journal.” Every day, experience that feeling by writing about it for five to 10 minutes. Very rapidly, this enhances people’s sense of well-being, improves the strength of their relationships and increases their willingness to help others. Stacks of studies show that the best predictor of financial, physical and psychological well-being comes from being in positive, supportive social relationships.
- Inspire others. Teachers, leaders and anyone in a position to model and reinforce positive behavior should take every opportunity to do so. Everyone can act with more compassion, which is easier to do when we focus on our similarities instead of our differences.
So when we watch “The Interview” later this week, rather than condemning Armstrong — or deciding whether we can ever forgive — we might be better off trying to see him as a mirror and asking ourselves how can we be better people, partners and parents as a result of his “sins”? After all, metaphorically speaking, we all live in glass houses.
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