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Top or Bottom


I recently watched the HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley about Elizabeth Holmes, the modern-day huckster who is now in jail for fraud. In the documentary, psychologist Dan Ariely explained an experiment that I had not heard of before but struck me. 

According to Ariely,

We have to understand this is all about wanting the world to be in a certain way and basically being able to rationalize our actions to try and make it true…

I’ll talk about the study we did and the experiment works like this. We give people a die, a six-sided die and we say why don’t you throw the die. We’ll pay you whatever comes up. If it comes up 6, we’ll pay you $6, five $5, 4, and so on until one. But you can get paid based on the top side or the bottom side. Top or bottom, you decide, but don’t tell us. 

So I give you the die and I say, “Don’t, don’t tell me. Think top or bottom. You have it? You know which one? Now toss the die. And let’s say the die comes with five on the bottom and two on the top. And now I say, “Allison, what did you pick?” Now, if you picked bottom you say bottom and you get $5 and you picked top what do you say? Do you say the truth, top, or do you change your mind? [Most people lie and] You say bottom and you get $5.

People in the experiment repeat the process twenty times. When they do this, the experiment participants are exceptionally “lucky” and get the higher numbers very often–particularly when the die toss is the six/one toss. When the toss is the 3/4 toss, people are less inclined to say 4 if they are inclined to lie. 

When they run the experiment again with the participants hooked to lie detectors, the lie detector does what you would expect–identifies that people are lying about which side (top or bottom) they supposedly chose before the toss. 

In another version of the experiment, they tell the people that all the money they win will go to a charity of their choosing. “What do you think happened,” Ariely asked the viewer, “People cheat more or less? People cheat more.” 

None of this is likely to surprise you, right? You have predicted all of these outcomes. Me too.

Here’s what I didn’t think about…After asking the viewer if people cheated more or less, Ariely said that they not only did people who thought the money would go to charity cheat more, 

the lie detector stops working. Why? Because what does the lie detector detect? The lie detector detects a tension. I want more money but I think it’s wrong. I want more but I think it’s wrong, but if it’s not wrong, why would you worry? If it’s for a good cause, you can still think of yourself as a good person and that’s how things start and then it becomes a slippery slope. 

And this explains how good people can get caught up in behaviors they would otherwise deem bad since they justify the behaviors as serving a greater good.

Ariely’s experiments provide valuable insights into the intricate relationship between human behavior, rationalization, and moral justifications. As we navigate our lives, we find ourselves in situations where our desires and our principles conflict. The experiment's findings, particularly the influence of a charitable cause on cheating behavior and the subsequent malfunction of lie detectors, underscore the potentially dangerous malleability of our moral compass when driven by a perceived greater good. These experiments are uncomfortable reminders of the potential consequences when individuals succumb to the temptation of bending reality to align with their desires. As he suggests, the “slippery slope” begins when individuals convince themselves that their actions, however questionable, are ultimately in service of a noble cause. This is only a white lie; something that no one would ever know and won’t hurt anyone…in fact, this white lie will help others. This is not bad and neither am I.

Adults understand the nuanced shades of gray needed because clear rights and wrongs are luxuries that are often not available. Understanding the underlying psychological mechanisms at play becomes crucial in our complex and interconnected world, where choices are rarely black and white. The experiment prompts us to reflect on the inclinations and justifications we may construct to rationalize behavior that strays from our moral compass. Unfortunately, each small step away from the truth towards the less-than-truth makes it easier and easier to keep going.

As we confront the intricacies of human nature, the experiment challenges us to be vigilant in questioning not only our actions but also the narratives we construct to validate them. Ultimately, it serves as a call to cultivate a heightened awareness of the delicate balance between personal desires and ethical considerations, urging us to navigate the fine line between wanting the world to be a certain way and upholding the integrity of our own principles. In doing so, we may find ourselves better equipped to resist the allure of rationalization and navigate the moral complexities inherent in our pursuit of a better world. 

The biggest challenge, I think, is that when not in the situation, we believe that we would act differently and better than those who we hear about afterward–be it those in the experiment, the crooked politicians, the people on trial, etc. Yet it is all too easy to think you’d be the exception to the rule. Perhaps, the best way to be the person whose actions and principles align is to be someone willing to admit that this alignment isn’t easy and comes at a cost. Thus the question we actually need to answer is not top or bottom, yes or no, black or white…it’s how much are you willing to give up regarding your enduring principles to get what you want in the moment?


P.S. There is really only one video game I like to play: Tetris. While I’m quite good at it, my daughter puts me to shame. Well, this week, there was a child who did what no human has ever done before–beat Tetris. Congrats to 13 year old Willis Gibson, beater or Tetris and my Catch of the Week. 

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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