Friday, May 31, 2013

Adam Smith, Identity and Cheating


In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith wrote: 
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred.

When it comes to behaving in ways that appear to violate our values, how influential is this natural desire for constituent belonging that Adam Smith talks about.   When we are in the right lane, driving along at 59mph in a 55mph zone while everyone else is zooming past at 70mph or more, and suddenly someone pulls close behind us.  Is it our desire, as Smith expressed it, not to be “that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred” that causes us then to speed up to 63mph?  

Our Identity is formed in how others see us.  We nurture the right Identity and seek constituent acknowledgement of that Identity.  We avoid things that would diminish our identity.  Dan Ariely has done loads of experiments which suggest that we all cheat.  If driving over the speed limit is cheating (which it is) then his extrapolation to the whole population is probably right.   In Chicago it is fair to say that everyone speeds.  

In environments where cheating occurs, we only cheat by a small amount, perhaps an amount that leaves us with a result that most people could believe we are capable.  We don’t go so far that in our own eyes we become unworthy.  We expect to get away with it and perhaps enhance our public persona in the process.  Ariely suggest that we all cheat a bit from time to time...on our taxes, on expense reports, on insurance claims, on our resumes, and on the golf course,...of course.
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