No honor among the…happy?

Think back to the last time you were tested on the honor code. Perhaps you found a $5 bill on the office floor, and had the choice of just taking it for yourself or asking those nearby if they had dropped it. Perhaps a cashier gave you too much change. Perhaps a friend asked you to do a favor, and your had to choose whether to agree or to give a reasonable but untrue excuse. Now, how were you feeling right before that decision came your way? You might think that if you were in a good mood, you’d have been more inclined to be generous with your time or money. But it turns out, if you were in a good mood, you were probably a little more dishonest.

Somehow, being in a good mood makes it seem more acceptable to tell lies and steal money. Students who recalled a happy or uplifting experience from their pasts were more likely to agree with statements like “It is ok to tell small lies because they don’t really do any harm” than students who had just recalled what they had done earlier that day. A good mood doesn’t mean we abandon moral rules entirely; agreement was still only a 3 out of 7, which would usually be translated as “slightly disagree”, but it also translates into some real-world petty theft.

In a separate study, students who had watched a (presumably humorous) cartoon of a duck in a shower were more likely to overpay themselves for their work than students who watched a more boring animation. After the video, volunteers were tasked with solving some number puzzles, at a pay rate of 50 cents per correct solution. They knew they were aiming for $10 total, but they weren’t given anywhere near enough time to solve 20 problems. They were supposed to pay themselves out of an envelope, and return the extra money with their cash. They saw nothing on the envelope or forms that could tie them individually to this envelope (it was written in invisible ink). Students who had watched to funny video, and who were in a good mood because of it, overpaid themselves by almost twice as much ($1.17) than people who had watched the boring video ($0.55 cents).

Now, it isn’t clear if being in a good mood actually inspired more people than usual to overpay themselves, or if it was still a steady percentage of cheaters who decided to be more generous with their pay than usual. We also don’t know how much money they had a chance to steal, and whether the people in a good mood were making off with the entire $10 or just overpaying by an amount they could reasonably pass off as a being a mathematics error or rounding up to the next dollar. Whatever it was, though, being in a good mood made at least some people feel more inclined to skim a little extra for themselves.

The good news is there’s at least one cure: a mirror. With a mirror in the room, an average of less than a quarter was taken, regardless of which video volunteers had seen. We don’t know how big that mirror was, so it’s possible that it was big enough to put people in mind of one-way mirrors and wonder if they were being watched. It seems more likely, though, that people just saw themselves in the mirror and this made them a little more self-aware, because they reported feeling more self-awareness on a survey that they returned with their envelope. So we can still trust the smile of someone who tends to be more self-aware.

And, since we probably don’t want to block people from their good moods, the key to promoting honesty may be promoting a little more self-awareness. Unsurprisingly, I have some mindful ideas about how to do that. Vincent LC, Emich KJ, & Goncalo JA (2013). Stretching the moral gray zone: positive affect, moral disengagement, and dishonesty. Psychological science, 24 (4), 595-599. PMID: 23467185


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