Friends and other influencers

Birds of a feather flock together.
c. 550 B.C.

Today, I want to talk about ethics and behavior. Do you think your moral choices are influenced by the people you consider friends? If so, what about people who only have a remote connection to you? Do you believe they can influence your behavior?

Before I answer these questions, I want to share an experiment carried out at Carnegie Mellon University by professors Francesca Gino (Harvard), Shahar Ayal (IDC Herzliya in Israel) and Dan Ariely (Duke University). The experiment involved college students completing an ability-based task under time pressure: students would be paid a fixed amount for each correct answer they reported.

The researchers administered the test to groups of students. Participants were instructed to take the test, then check their results and pay themselves based on their total number of correct answers. While the students did turn in the test papers, no one was assigned to verify their results, so the students would believe they could cheat without being detected.

The professors also added a slight twist to the experiment. They recruited a drama student to act as an accomplice. This person was a “plant”; a few minutes into the test, the accomplice stood up, claimed to have solved all the problems, and asked what to do.

He was told to turn in his test, pay himself, and leave — thus confirming to the other participants that no one would check their results.

The test was designed so that it could not be completed in the time allowed. So when the accomplice stood up after just a few minutes and said he had answered all the questions, everyone knew he was cheating.

Here’s the twist. The experiments were conducted on the Carnegie Mellon campus. For some of the experiments, the accomplice wore a gray T-shirt. For others, he wore a T-shirt from the University of Pittsburgh, a cross-town rival.

When he wore the gray T-shirt, the students felt like he was one of them. When he wore a University of Pittsburgh T-shirt, the students didn’t identify with him; he was an outsider.

The results were very interesting. When the students felt a connection to the accomplice, over 24% of participants reported solving all the problems. When the students thought he was an outsider, less than 4% of the students reported solving all the problems.

Clearly, we take cues from those we consider to be like us. Our friends and associates have a greater impact on our actions than we suspect.

So choose your companions with care. The moral standards of those around you have a real influence on your behavior, whether you realize it or not.

We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the color of our moral character, from those who are around us.
John Locke
1632 – 1704

Copyright © 2018 John Chancellor

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