Menanteau Serfontein – 4 February 2022
Please note that before this Essay is read, it would be beneficial to first read the Essay entitled “Things That Strengthen and Weaken Our Integrity – Small Choices Matter” – Part 1”.
Dishonesty as a Social Contagion
In the process of exploring the nature and motivations for dishonesty, Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics and author, found himself wondering whether dishonesty might spread from person to person like a social contagion – an “immorality virus”. If people saw someone from their same social group cheating, would it make them more likely to cheat too?
What Ariely uncovered in his experiments, was the insidious social component of dishonesty and the way it can indeed spread like an infection. Ariely theorizes that “in many areas of life, we look to others to learn what behaviours are appropriate and inappropriate.”
Ariely concluded that “dishonesty may very well be one of the cases where the social norms that define acceptable behaviour are not very clear, and the behaviour of others can shape our ideas about what’s right and wrong.” In other words, witnessing someone from our social group being dishonest, can potentially “recalibrate our internal moral compass.”
How to Inoculate Yourself Against the Virus of Moral Decay
Choose your friends and associates wisely. Every man likes to fancy himself as a completely independent lone wolf who is immune to peer pressure. Such autonomy may be a worthy ideal, but research on the subject has shown that – to one degree or another – we are all influenced by those with whom we are surrounded – they can even play a role in shifting the needle of our moral compass as well.
It is most definitely possible to spend your time with those who have far lower moral standards than you and still maintain your own. It’s just more difficult. Swimming upstream gets tiresome, and you run the risk of eventually being worn down and coming to accept the lower standards as your new normal. When you surround yourself with friends who share your high moral standards, however, staying on the straight and narrow becomes much easier.
Know and be firm in your personal moral code. While we all may be influenced by our friends to varying degrees, the firmer and clearer we are about our values, principles and standards, the less swayed we will be by the actions and examples of others.
Have you applied your mind and considered the following questions?
- Is your personal moral code vague and squishy, or is it crystal clear and set on a firm foundation?
- Have you taken the time to reflect on your values and principles?
- Do you know how and why you arrived at embracing them or are they unexamined beliefs that you have absorbed from your upbringing and culture?
Whether you are amongst like-minded people or far afield with those who do not share your values, your personal moral code will act as a constant source of direction so that you act as the same man wherever you go and with whomever you meet.
Stopping the Spread of Contagion in Society
Integrity is not simply a personal virtue, but a social one as well. In fact, there may be no other virtue in which an individual’s personal cultivation of it has such a large effect on society as a whole. The “social contagion theory” explains why.
When one individual decides to act in an unethical way, his example can influence someone else to do likewise, resulting in a domino effect that lowers the standards of an ever-widening group of people. Or as Dan Ariely puts it: “Passed from person to person, dishonesty has a slow, creeping, socially erosive effect. As the ‘virus’ mutates and spreads from one person to another, a new, less ethical code of conduct develops. And although it is subtle and gradual, the final outcome can be disastrous. This is the real cost of even minor instances of cheating and the reason we need to be more vigilant in our efforts to curb even small infractions.”
The virus of dishonesty is not an abstract idea. Think of the corruption that seems to run rampant in government as well as the private sector. It surely started with a few individuals who were willing to let things slide. Those around them saw that this was the new norm and began to adopt the same standards. When new guys came in, they adopted what had by then become the standard culture of the enterprise. Even the “doctors” who promise to come in and clean things up end up infected by the same disease they were supposed to cure. It doesn’t have to be on such a grand scale either.
Ariely further argues that the cheating and dishonesty of public figures has an outsized effect on the overall integrity level of society, as their odious examples get broadcasted to so many people.
What then can we do to throw a wrench in this cycle?
There seems to be an increased “blurring” of what is “right” vs “wrong” and “good” vs “bad” . It appears that the concept of Absolute Truths is no longer fashionable. Instead, relativism is gaining ground, i.e. everything is relative: “what is true for you is not true for me”. Everything is circumstantial – “I will do what is convenient, not what is right”.
I agree with C.S. Lewis (author, lay theologian and academic at both Oxford University and Cambridge University) who said a few decades ago, that the absence of absolute truths, would lead to the decay of morality and a lack of virtue within society. Without a belief in and the teaching of absolute truths inherent in the moral laws of traditional humanity, we fail to educate the heart and are left with intelligent men who behave upon impulse without restraint and filters, or as Lewis puts it, “Men without Chests”.
It could also be as a result of parents, educational institutions and even religious organizations not actively teaching children and adults about absolute truths – what it is, why it is important and how to apply it.
I believe that individuals and entities at all levels throughout society should be doing substantially more to inculcate sound values and principles. This will help to ensure that people do not end up with world-class knowledge and skills about subject matter, but lacking the knowledge and skills to successfully manage their personal lives within the boundaries of sound ethical and moral values and principles.
All of us have a responsibility to use our sphere of influence to persuade people to reject relativism and to embrace and inculcate timeless, absolute godly truths, values and principles in all spheres of society, so that we don’t become “men without chests”.
We should publicize and champion stories of people who are doing the right thing. Ariely argues that giving good examples more attention is effective, because morality is contagious in the very same way that dishonesty is: “With more salient and vivid examples of commendable behaviour, we might be able to improve what society views as acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, and ultimately improve our actions.”
We’ve developed an attitude of “see no evil, hear no evil” — that we shouldn’t care what other people are doing and should look the other way, minding our own business. I agree that we should not be hyper-critical and judgemental, i.e. looking for the splinter in my brother’s eye without seeing the plank in my own eye. However, by taking the principle of non-judgementalism too far, we end up turning a blind eye to obvious gross instances of dishonesty and unethical behaviour whereby the spread of the “virus” of moral decay is fuelled even further. In fact, it could be argued that turning a blind eye could in some instances be regarded as aiding and abetting unethical behaviour and thereby playing a part in dishonesty becoming the new normal in society.
We’ve adopted a mindset of tolerance in the name of personal freedom and “non-judgementalism”. Yet the result has been the erection of liberty-reducing external controls in the form of rules and regulations designed to detect dishonesty in the absence of a culture of honour. Such rules and regulations may act as a last defense line of safeguards, but they aren’t truly effective; when people know that they aren’t being watched by others and have no fear of being called out and punished for their actions, they will try to game and take advantage of the system to the greatest extent possible, circumventing the rules whenever they can. Those who don’t cheat (yet) see this and worry that if they don’t start fudging things too, they will be left behind. Soon, more and more people feel that they should embrace a grey zone of morality to get ahead.
There is a popular viewpoint these days that ridicules the idea that one individual’s personal decisions and behaviour could possibly have an effect on the behaviour of others. But what the scientific research on the subject has established, is that each person’s actions have an ever-so-subtle ripple effect that influences others and the culture at large. We cannot see it with our eyes, or in real time, and of course no one is consciously aware of how these ripples are affecting them. No, it all happens at the level of the subconscious. This should surely give us reason to pause and cause us to reflect on our own behaviour. What signals are you and I sending out each day? Are you and I a person whose example is making the world better…or worse?
Note: A large amount of the content of this essay has been derived from an Article by Brett & Kate McKay • August 12, 2013 • Last updated: September 25, 2021 “What Strengthens and Weakens Our Integrity — Part III: How to Stop the Spread of Immorality” https://www.artofmanliness.com/character/behaviour/what-strengthens-and-weakens-our-integrity-part-iii-how-to-stop-the-spread-of-the-immorality-virus/
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