Posts Tagged ‘honesty’

Grannies killed by college exams

January 24, 2016

imagesIt’s true. College exams are deadly for students’ grandmothers. A study determined that granny death rates spike tenfold before a midterm, and nineteen times before a final exam. One theory is that grannies’ health is undermined by anxiety and stress when their grandchildren face exams. Indeed, the study found that failing students are fifty times likelier to lose a grandmother in the run-up to an exam, compared to non-failing students.

This is reported in Dan Ariely’s book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke.

images-3But seriously, what’s really going on is that students commonly make up grandmother deaths as a pretext for requesting exam postponements. Shocking.

The book’s main theme is that we all lie and cheat. But that doesn’t make us sociopaths. In fact, we tend to lie and cheat only so much that we can still look in the mirror and see an honest ethical person. We sometimes lie to ourselves.

UnknownAriely invokes numerous laboratory experiments. In a typical case, test subjects are asked to solve a set of puzzles within a time limit, earning a payment for each one solved. But on an honor system: they self-report their performance. Most fudge it upward, but only by a little.

images-1I found much of this suspiciously artificial and unlike real life. In another example, people were asked to gauge whether more dots appeared to the right or left of a line. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes not. But when told they’d be paid substantially more for saying “right” than “left,” the answers skewed rightward. This Ariely called dishonesty. I disagree. If told I’d be paid more simply for saying “right” rather than “left,” I’d shrug and say “right” every time. That’s just a rational response to the rules.

Perhaps I’m quibbling. But most of Ariely’s lab tests entailed honesty along a gradient, falling in shades of gray. Whereas in everyday life ethical questions are often either-or. For instance, in my coin business, I normally send out orders before payment. Perhaps if, Ariely lab style, customers calculated their own bills, there might be some fudging. But when it’s just paying versus not paying, over 99% pay. Some even correct errors made in their favor.

This bespeaks honesty of a high order. Maybe my customers are not a representative cross-section, but I don’t think collectively they’re that unusual. Nor is my business. Most of the world’s commerce proceeds on a basis of mutual trust between trading partners; it’s our default assumption. Unknown-1I once got an e-mail from a stranger in Africa selling coins. I gave him a substantial order. He didn’t know me, but assumed that an American businessperson would likely pay. And I did pay him after receiving the package. That’s how it works.

This basic level of trust is a fundamental underpinning of civilization. Of course we know we must watch out for violators; we lock our doors. Yet still you assume the average person whose paths you cross won’t bash your head in and grab your stuff. Or that a store won’t sell you defective goods. And so forth. Otherwise civilization could not function.

A recent poll found a significant decline in the percentage agreeing that most people are trustworthy. There’s no evidence we’ve actually become less trustworthy – only that we think people have. images-2Ariely seems to, pointing to scandals like Enron. But were businesses more ethical in bygone times? I doubt it; indeed, it’s harder to get away with scams in today’s interconnected media world of constant scrutiny and exposure. Yet that parade of exposures – Volkswagen is a recent example – does make people believe misfeasance has become rampant, compared to a romanticized past. I also suspect that decreased face-to-face personal interactions undermines our acculturation to the idea that people are generally trustworthy. But if that makes us less trusting, the decline in perceived trustworthiness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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The Speech Hillary Won’t Give

August 26, 2015

My fellow Americans:

I am going to level with you about the e-mail controversy.

I did not have inappropriate e-mail with that server."

“I did not have inappropriate e-mail with that server…”

No, really, this time.

There is a kind of personality that finds it hard to admit making a mistake, let alone wrongdoing. The ego gets in the way. And I have come to recognize this in myself. Well, the first step in fixing a problem is to see that you’ve got one.

Let me start with something obvious – America has bitter political divisions. And there is an unfortunate tendency to believe people you disagree with are not just wrong but wicked – which contributes mightily to government dysfunction. Alas, I now realize that I myself have fed this syndrome.

So when the e-mail controversy began, I waved it off as just more political crap, a nefarious effort by my foes to cook up points against me – you know, “the vast right wing conspiracy.” Well, it is a fact that many people do hate me and my politics, and will do anything to bring me down. However – there’s a big difference between that and pursuing a legitimate issue. I have failed to recognize and respect that difference (until now).

Since 2009 federal regulations require all e-mails be preserved as part of an agency's record-keeping system

Since 2009 federal regulations require all e-mails be preserved as part of an agency’s record-keeping system

So let me be clear, once and for all, with no more defensiveness, self-righteousness, dismissiveness, political posturing, or legalistic hair-splitting: my handling of my State Department e-mails was wrong.

There. I’ve said it.

Let me be more specific. The key point is that in America we have a fundamental principle of open government; and that applies to communications by public officials on public business. I should have realized I was violating that principle by using a private server, under my exclusive personal control, for my State Department e-mails. And that it would look like I was hiding something. Me – Hillary – hiding something? Who could imagine such a thing? (You do understand irony.)

And then – then – after this thing blew up, and I was indeed accused of hiding something – what did I do? I erased all the e-mails that I – yes, I alone, with no oversight – judged to be personal. The nation was supposed to just take my word that they were personal. And then I had the server wiped clean, to make sure those thousands of e-mails could never be seen. Hiding something? Who, me? What was I thinking?

Me, who served on the Watergate committee, and well remembered the infamous 18-1/2 minute erasure on Nixon’s White House tapes.

Unknown-1Now, I have tried to explain before why I thought what I did made sense at the time. I could go through all that again, but you know what? To quote a certain Secretary of State, “What difference does it make now?” Because the bottom line is that for all my rationalizations, it was a big boo-boo, and if I could have a do-over, I’d do things differently.

Well. Whew. This has been hard for me. But I feel better now. Confession is cathartic. And the silver lining in making mistakes is that you can learn from them. Let me tell you, I’ve learned a big lesson – which I truly feel will make me a better person, and a better public servant, in the future.

images-1Let us now move forward and see what we can do about tackling together the challenges our nation faces.

So please, please, please forgive and forget, and give me power, you goddamned bunch of ingrates, saps and morons . . . is this mike still on? Oh shit.