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Drawing Out Our Better Angels: The Important Role of Moral Reminders

Everyone has their pet theories about human morality; are we inherently selfless or selfish? Indeed, the “nature of man” has been a popular subject throughout the millennia. Thomas Hobbes claimed that life in the state of nature is brutish and short while Rousseau held that nothing is more peaceful than man in his natural state. So which is it? Are we intrinsically evil with our moments of good actually being selfishness in disguise? Or do societies and cultures cover up our primitive motivations to do unto others as we would have them do unto us?

Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist out of the University of Minnesota, tells one side of the story. In a series of experiments Vohs demonstrated that evoking the concept of money influences people to be more self-reliant and individualistic. In the first experiment Vohs gave participants 30 sets of jumbled words and tasked them with the challenge of unscrambling them to construct a four-word phrase. 15 of the phrases were neutral (e.g., “cold it desk outside is” became “it is cold outside.”) while the other 15 evoked the concept of money (e.g., “high a salary desk paying” became “a high-paying salary.”). To top it off, Vohs placed a stack of Monopoly money in the visual periphery of the participants in the money-condition while they completed the descrambling task. Next, the participants completed a difficult but solvable task by arranging 12 disks into a square with five disks per side. Here was the key: “As the experimenter exited the room, he offered that he was available to help if the participant wanted assistance.” What Vohs measured was how long participants would hold out before they asked for help. She found that participants who were primed with money persevered nearly twice as long before asking for help.

Vohs followed up this experiments with others. Her findings were consistent with the first experiment: when people are reminded of money they tend to focus more on themselves. For instance, “when an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils.” Similarly, when “participants were told that they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person… participants primed by money chose to stay much farther apart than their nonprimed peers (118 vs. 80 centimeter).”

What do these studies suggest? In Vohs’ words, “money brings about a state of self-sufficiency. Relative to people not reminded of money, people reminded of money reliably performed independent but socially insensitive actions.” Perhaps, then, Hobbes was right, man is brutish.

But let’s not get too pessimistic about our inner demons. In a series of experiments Dan Ariely demonstrated that people primed with the concepts of fairness and equality were less likely to cheat than a control group. Eagle eyed readers of Predictably Irrational may recall the experiments. In one, Ariely et al asked participants to complete a simple math test. There were 20 problems that required participants to find two numbers that added up to 10 (details here). They had five minutes to solve as many of the problems as they could after which they were entered into a lottery where they had the chance of winning ten dollars for every correct problem. Ariely and his colleagues created two groups: one was instructed to hand their answers directly to the experimenter; the other turned in a duplicate answer sheet, which they created, and disposed the original. The latter group, as planned, was given a chance to cheat.

And the results? Ariely found that the group given the chance to cheat did in fact cheat, but only by a little bit. This wasn’t the important part. The key to the experiment is what preceded the math problems. Before participants tackled the math problems, Ariely and his team asked them to do one of two things for a “memory test:” write down the names of 10 books they read in high school or write down as many of the Ten Commandments they could remember. When cheating wasn’t possible the participants solved 3.1 problems correctly on average. But when cheating was possible – and this is where things got interesting – the group that recalled 10 books from high school solved about 4.1 of the questions on average while the group that recalled the Ten Commandments solved about 3 problems on average. In other words, for the participants who were given the chance to cheat, the “books in high school” group cheated while the Ten Commandments group didn’t.

Ariely ran a nearly identical experiment except he swapped the Ten Commandments with the MIT honor code (his participants were MIT nerds). As you might have guessed, the scores of those who had to read and sign the honor code were nearly identical to the control group suggesting that they didn’t cheat while the scores of those who didn’t have to read and sign the honor code showed strong signs of cheating. This means, in Ariely’s words, that “people cheat when they have a chance to do so… [but] once they begin thinking about honesty – whether by recalling the Ten Commandments or by signing a simple statement – they stop cheating completely. In other words, when we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thoughts, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we are much more likely to be honest.” Advantage Rousseau.

Vohs’ and Ariely’s work suggests that the question of humans being inherently good or bad is largely irrelevant. The more accurate picture is the cartoon image; our moral senses are dictated by an angel over one shoulder and a devil over the other. Therefore, the more fruitful question is: what are the external contexts and circumstances that favor one over the other? This is not to suggest a blank slate view of human morality – far from it – but it is to say that societies where messages of honesty and fairness dominate are better off. Ariely’s conclusion is bad news for societies where it is almost impossible to go a day without seeing a photo, video or advertisement where avarice rules. And this is the larger and more important point. When given a chance to cheat most people do; not a lot, but enough to improve a test score by a few points (One can easily see how this can perpetuate in a negative way). But when the same people are reminded about honestly and fairness it is their moral codes that take the drivers seat. So let’s hope that those in control of the airwaves can drawn out our better angels by broadcasting messages of honestly and fairness.


Vohs, K., Mead, N., & Goode, M. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money Science, 314 (5802), 1154-1156 DOI: 10.1126/science.1132491

Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance Journal of Marketing Research, 45 (6), 633-644 DOI: 10.1509/jmkr.45.6.633

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sam,

    Interesting, as usual.

    I don’t know how you can infer that because people reminded of money are more diligent with problem solving, it proves Hobbes’ assertion that man is brutish.

    November 10, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I didn’t infer that money influenced people to be more diligent with problem solving. I (Vohs, actually) said it influenced them to be more self-reliant and individualistic.

      I guess you could interpret that study as money-influencing-diligence. But I don’t think such an interpretation would undermine my idea about money making people more Hobbesian.

      November 10, 2011
      • I thought you did after reading this paragraph:

        “What do these studies suggest? In Vohs’ words, “money brings about a state of self-sufficiency. Relative to people not reminded of money, people reminded of money reliably performed independent but socially insensitive actions.” Perhaps, then, Hobbes was right, man is brutish.”

        If, as I do, you define brutish to be “Of or pertaining to the brutes, or lower animals, as opposed to man” then you can see why I say that simply being reminded of money doesn’t necessarily cause even the most jaded or, to use Vohs’ wording, “socially insensitive” of us could be so characterized, don’t you think?

        Besides, might it not be said with some veracity that social insensitivity is quite relative: I wish, for example, someone in Nazi Germany had been socially insensitive toward German societal (and legal!) mores. Darn, here comes Godwin’s Law again!

        November 10, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          Having understanding your second paragraph. Could you explain what you mean again?

          November 10, 2011
          • I did mangle it up a bit!

            I contrast the definition of brutish with Vohs’ socially insensitive actions that may be engendered by people being reminded of money and find that there is no necessary and/or causative relationship between the two. I also find that sometimes being socially insensitive may actually be the antithesis of brutish behavior.

            I hope that makes sense?

            November 10, 2011
            • sammcnerney #

              Yeah, it makes sense now. But I still wouldn’t say that being socially insensitive is the antithesis of brutish behavior. I think they describe similar things. More importantly, though, I think your criticisms do not address what I am trying to say in the post. Let’s not get caught up in semantics.

              November 13, 2011
  2. Considering all of the cheating scandals of the past few years (including one with teachers falsifying children’s standardized test scores) I put a lot more credence in the idea that, at least where opprtunity involving money; keeping one’s job, getting raises or promotions or acceptance into high prestige schools or programs, altogether too many people are prepared to cheat in the name of success. I even once knew a middle school teacher who taught his students the standardized test itself (and then had the gall to brag about how well his students did on that same test). He was however fired when another teacher walked in and saw what he was doing and reported him.

    November 17, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Wow, that is a really horrible story! There is a similar story in Freakonomics, which I also found disturbing.

      November 17, 2011
    • Well aren’t you just the sweetest?Speaking of, we have filalny updated our blogroll to include you. Sorry it took so long–we don’t know what we are doing technologically. Not kidding.Tonight’s project is to figure out how to turn on the spell check at NBS.Hi to Mr. Curmudgeonry from NBS!

      February 7, 2013

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