The Chariness of Our Honesty

The person-situation debate –I knew there’d be an argument about that sooner or later. It’s the concern that maybe we aren’t the same person we thought we were –that we might change with circumstances… Perhaps there is no eternal me that rides the waves; maybe I’m not so predictable after all.

So why are they still squabbling about it? Nobody I know has even heard of it, let alone argued about it at dinner.

The issue seems to be whether it is personal traits or the situation that decides behavior. Are honest people always honest -even in the face of temptation? Even when all around are corrupt? And are traits themselves corruptible, or do we hold with Hamlet that ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’?

And what about the intuitively compelling idea of a thin-edge-of-a-wedge starting it all off –the so-called slippery slope? Is it really the case that we are more able to justify small deviations –little discrepancies, or small lies- which inure us to the incremental changes that might lead to something unanticipated? Unintended? I would have thought so, at any rate. But, of course, intuition is grist for the academic mill, and just when you think you have a finger on the pulse of malfeasance, along comes a Dutch study that puts paid to your naïveté: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170124152025.htm

The study, mentioned in the Association for Psychological Science, seems to indicate that: ‘[…] severe unethical behavior doesn’t necessarily emerge through a gradual process but can result from a sudden “golden opportunity”.’ Coals to Newcastle, perhaps, but it does question something that has always seemed obvious to me: ‘The popular idea that unethical behavior tends to start small and build up over time falls in line with established psychological processes like moral disengagement and shifting social norms — the gradual progression from small, ambiguous acts to progressively larger transgressions may enable those involved to maintain the belief that they are moral, upstanding people.’ I really don’t know what to believe any more.

And what about the people on an average city bus? Do they realize the perils of temptation? I mean, do they read the Science Daily releases, or go directly to the Association for Psychological Science?  Are they corruptible –and would they begin small or just go for it? I didn’t start out trying to solve this age-old enigma –I was just trying to get downtown on a Saturday morning to shop, but I did keep my ears open. Why waste a trip?

I found myself sitting beside a  large and fittingly be-perfumed older woman who was trying to figure out a rather dated looking cell phone –trying to turn it on, actually. We both found ourselves sandwiched between a row young teenagers –very young, I think- sitting behind and in front of us. They were well enough behaved, but nonetheless talkative. And curious.

One of them behind us, happening to glance up from his own cell phone I imagine, noticed my seat mate’s dilemma and stuck his head over the back of our seat. “Is that a new model, ma’am?” he asked politely.

I think she thought it was me who asked the question and she turned her head and looked down the bridge of her nose starting with my hair and then sliding downward. It was not a pleasant set of eyes that encountered mine and they made a brief, but hostile foray onto my face before being repelled by an innocent blink. They flew off and attacked the young man whose head had interposed itself as a more assailable target. “Pardon me?” she said to it, now more surprised than angry, but with a voice that raised hackles on the two girls sitting ahead of us. So they, curious, turned and stared at us as well.

The two boys behind us were delighted they now had an audience of like-aged females. “I was just wondering about your phone,” the head explained.

“It’s my sister’s… What about it?” she replied, throwing the words at him like gauntlets.

He smiled innocently, although I could see his eyes twinkling. “I’ve just not seen another one like that.”

One of the girls, a red head with wild, uncombed hair and freckles giggled. “My mom has one of those in her drawer, Eddy,” she said, proud to be in the conversation now, but smiling at the lady beside me.

“Is that so?” the woman said, but not returning the smile. “Why is it in her drawer?”

The girl shrugged innocently. “Not sure… It used to be her favorite phone, she told me. It probably doesn’t work, or something.”

The boy’s eyes turned from twinkle to sparkle. “I’ll fix it for her…”

“Yeah?” the girl ahead was not uninterested in the idea. “What’s the catch, Eddy?” She glanced at her girlfriend. “You know she doesn’t like you.”

“Date,” he said. “I fix it, and she agrees to let me go out with you again.”

I could almost smell the proto-testosterone dripping from his smile.

The red head rolled her eyes comically and snorted. “What makes you think you could even fix it? It’s pretty old…”

He managed to shrug with his head –well, that’s the only part I could see anyway- and then sighed loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the bus. “Look, I see it as a win-win-win, eh? She gets her favourite phone back, and you and I get each other.”

The girl glanced at her friend again, obviously tempted. “I dunno Eddy. Maybe you should start with offering to fix her old phone, first. She’d probably like that…”

The woman beside me was snapping her eyes back and forth, open-mouthed- to catch the conversation. And she was not happy about the position of Eddy’s head. Suddenly she turned nose-to nose with him, and slapped him with a malevolent glare. “Prove you can do it, kid. Fix mine and then work on her mother…”

She handed Eddy the phone and he smirked, touched a button on the side of the screen and it lit up. Then, before she could even thank him, he handed the phone back to her, pulled the signal cord, and the four teens got off the bus together.

“That was nice of him,” I said to the woman, trying to be friendly after our shared encounter. “Do you think her mother will fall for it?” I added, remembering the conclusion of the Dutch study.

But she was already too engrossed in her phone to bother with me. I managed a quiet sigh and stared at my lap, disappointed at being left completely out of the loop. I suspect I still don’t really understand corruption. There are just too many layers…