I think I misunderstood the nature of this event. When I read the title “Flexible morality of user engagement and user behaviour”, I thought it was referring to Guardian commenters. This, I thought, was the panel for me. As it turns out ‘users’ refers to all of us though, at least all of us who have been put under the observation of Dan Ariely.
Ariely is a behavioural economist who has gained a degree of renown for his theory that humans are much less rational than they believe themselves to be. The purpose of this talk was to convince the assembled audience that not only are we less rational, we’re less moral too.
Ariely bases this conclusion on experiments he has conducted on more than 25,000 people to find out what it would take to make them cheat. In conjunction with colleague Sarah Szalavitz, Ariely has performed a variety of tests, some involving non-functioning paper shredders, others the performing of religious sacraments, and across a variety of groups (Ariely and Szalavitz seem to do a lot of work with insurance companies, go figure). The occasion of this seminar was to reveal the results of a survey commissioned especially for SXSWi, and unfortunately for the festival it appears that while delegates would refrain from ripping off Twitter they’d be quite happy to rip off SXSW.
The SXSW survey was fun, but didn’t appear all that illuminating as to more general trends. I did however glean some of Ariely’s bigger picture ideas:
Most people cheat a little, but very few cheat a lot.
If offered the incentive to cheat most people will not jump at the chance immediately. Keep offering them the opportunity, however, and eventually they will do so. Ariely and Szalavitz call this the ‘What the hell effect’
Across a range of areas - school, law, sex, game, tech, work - men are more likely to be dishonest than women. If, however, a woman is dishonest in one area, she is more likely to be dishonest in ALL areas than a man.
Ariely and Szalavitz have no evidence to suggest that people are less likely to cheat an individual than they are to cheat an institution or company. The idea of ‘sticking it to the man’, says Ariely, is probably just a cover for our own selfishness.
And so, another session ended with a sense of disappointment. This time though it wasn’t at the quality of the event, but at the state of humankind. I hope I can take Ariely’s observations and help them to make myself a better person. Or maybe I’ll just rip them off and try to make some money.