Have you ever wondered why a trumpeter of family values would suddenly turn around and cheat on his wife? Why jealousy would send an otherwise level-headed person into a violent rage? What could drive a person to blow a family fortune at the blackjack tables?
Or have you ever pondered what might make Mr. Right leave his beloved at the altar, why hypocrisy seems to be rampant, or even why, every once in awhile, even you are secretly tempted, to lie, cheat, or steal (or, conversely, help someone you never even met)?
Out of Character answers these questions and more, and in doing so, turns the prevailing wisdom about who we are upside down.
Is hypocrisy a trait confined to a few bad seeds? Or might the potential to act hypocritically lurk in all of us?
We suspected the later. Not because we believe human beings are inherently flawed or morally brankrupt but because the mind is subject to a constant and often hidden battle that frequently drives us to say or do one thing one minute, only to turn around and do the very opposite the next.
But how exactly does this battle play out?
An act of cheating should be dishonest, an act of selfishness should be selfish, no matter who committed it. The ‘badness’ of a transgression shouldn’t depend on the identity of the transgresor, right? But this is not what happened. People judged the selfish act as far less morally reprehensible when they committed it than when someone else did.
- Our judgments of what is morally acceptable action seem to be quiet fluid.
- Our short-term impulses for rewards in the moment–whether those rewards are a night of uninhibited passion with a stranger or getting out of a tedious lab experiment in time for happy hour–can temporarily squelch the voice reminding us about the benefits of a solid reputation in the long term. It’s not that we silence this voice purposely, or even consciously; it’s a result of the ongoing battle between our short-term interests and our long-term ones.
When we act hypocritically, then, it’s often not that we’re ignoring or deliberately disregarding our beliefs and morals; it’s merely that our short-term concerns have momentarily triumphed.
Read this case scenario:
You find yourself standing on a footbridge overlooking trolley tracks. Barreling down these tracks is a runaway trolley that, if allowed to continue unimpeded, will run over and kill five workmen who are up ahead on the tracks. Standing next to you is a rather large man. The only way to stop the trolley would be to push the large stranger off the bridge and onto the tracks, whereby it would kill him but stop the trolley before it reached and killed the other five. Should you push him?
On this particular day, John answered quickly and decisively: no. For Ben, the answer was easy as well: yes. Exact same moral conumdrum, completely opposite answers (and it’s not that John and Ben differed in age, background, or some fundamental way–we’d controlled for that). Why the difference? The answer lies in that video clip.
It just so happens that the clip Ben watched right before he was presented with the moral dilemma was a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. John, on the other hand, got stuck watching part of some dull documentary on life in remote Spanish villages. ‘So what?’ you’re probably wondering. ‘Something as minor as watching television couldn’t possibly lead our intrepid participants to report such wildly different views about whether it’s morally acceptable to push someone to certain death, could it?’
Actually yes. Our emotional instincts and impulses often guide our moral choices. Consequently, anything that can alter what we’re feeling has the potential to derail (no pun intended) our moral reasoning, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Turns out this is exactly what was going on with Ben and the others like him who decided to push the stranger off the bridge. They weren’t callous, coldhearted killers. Nor were they simply unfeeling logicians. It’s not that their characters were fundamentally different from those of John and the others like him; it’s just that their intuitive feelings got smacked down due to a little experimental interference.