Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

From the ABC (the US one, not the Australian Broadcasting Corporation):
Honest people don't have to work at not cheating. They're not even tempted.

Neuroscientists at Harvard University conducted an experiment in which they were able to predict by looking at brain scans whether people were cheating or telling the truth. The scientists cautioned, however, that they are still far from being able to apply the technology to real-world situations.
In each round, fMRI was used to record brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and other regions associated with decision making and behavioural control.

Honest players showed no increase in brain activity when they had a chance to cheat, suggesting that they didn't have to make a conscious effort to be honest. In contrast, dishonest players showed increased brain activity whenever they had a chance to cheat – even when they reported (presumably truthfully) that they had lost.

I'm not sure I agree with their definition of "honesty". Someone to whom the idea of being false is literally unthinkable isn't so much being honest, as being true.

Someone who is aware of the possibility of gaining by lying, but choses to tell the truth anyway because that's the right thing to do, that's being honest.

And I'd much rather trust such a person outside that context than someone who isn't even tempted. Because those who haven't been tempted have never been tested, and there may come a time when they do encounter temptation in another context - and may fail.

In that regard, in most contexts I'm not honest, merely true. Sometimes I get surprised at what others regard as "normal behaviour", especially in a legal context. I could never perjure myself, or plead guilty to something I hadn't done to get a minor sentence, merely to avoid an inevitable finding of guilt and a far more severe punishment. The whole concept of doing that is just beyond my ken.

I think that's a matter of ego rather than something more creditable though. Brutally, when stripped of all pretense and self-deception, the only person whose opinion of myself I value is me. The world may think I should be ashamed of myself, but as long as I know that I've not done anything wrong, even if no-one else does, that's what matters when the chips are down. Conversely though... even if no-one else in the world knows that I've done something wrong, but I do, then that's all that matters too.

ShrinkWrapped had a good article on the subject some years ago, in a political and social rather than purely personal context. The difference between Guilt and Shame.

Shakespeare's Polonius said in a deliberately hokey homily to his son:
"To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."
But of course, he then got sliced up a treat by Hamlet when hiding behind a curtain, listening in, pretending and being false. It's all too easy to be a hypocrite without realising it. Parenthetically, Shakespeare obviously intended Polonius to be a knowing hypocrite, these homilies mere mouthings - even though they're really good advice. By the Director including or omitting a short scene with Renaldo, he can either be seen as a knave or a naif, depending on what is wanted. But I Digress.

Whoever said "Honesty is the Best Policy" had obviously never tried it. The vicious streak of honesty I have has gotten me into far more hot water than anything bad I've ever done.

But being shameless - at least, when I know I'm not guilty - that has stood me in good stead. Many people think I should be ashamed of, well, having my sex change. And I am embarrassed by it. But shamed? Not in the slightest. So when I deal face-to-face with such people, and it's obvious to them that I'm not ashamed in the slightest, nor trying to hide my "shameful secret", they have severe cognitive dissonance. It can cause them to question their beliefs about the subject. By being an open book (rather than either a blaring advertising sign, or a locked tome in a restricted archive), just by being me, I've had a lot of success reaching people.


sumptos devil s advocate said...

ABC here in the States is called "ABC," not "the ABC."

SnoopyTheGoon said...

That diagram (or whatever its' called) doesn't have a place for a politician. When a P is guilty and others believe and know that P is guilty and not punished and doesn't feel guilty and...

Zosimus the Heathen said...

Interesting... Some random reflections I had while reading it:

1) Hearing of research in which scientists claim to be able to determine (with the aid of some whiz-bang new technology) whether people are lying or not always makes me uneasy. As with all new technology, there's always a dark side, and while it may hopefully always remain a dystopian science fiction scenario, I can't help wondering if a day will come when such technology becomes sufficiently advanced to allow the development of bona fide "mind reading" machines. What a terrifying prospect!

2) I too would rather have dealings with someone who was merely "honest" than "true". In my case, this belief comes from things I've read which have suggested that some of the most dangerous people in the world are the truly incorruptible, the "true believers" in some destructive cause. This was apparently the case, for example, with the former Ethiopian Marxist dictator, Haile Mariam Mengistu, who was said to have been far less corrupt than the average African despot, and to have committed far more evil as a consequence. Apparently, he wasn't just interested in his own enrichment and self-aggrandizement, as many of his peers on the continent were; he really wanted to turn his country into a model Communist state (the most "Sovietized" country outside the USSR itself, in fact), and would stop at nothing to accomplish that goal.

3) Finally, I've been pretty shameless with my own gender issues (cross-dressing in my case) throughout my life, and have also found it to be an approach that works well. Indeed, for good or ill, I've never really been able to understand the tendency of so many cross-dressers to feel "guilt" and "shame" (two words I hear again and again and again from their mouths) after they indulge in their fondness for women's clothing; I've just never felt either thing myself. I couldn't tell you why, though, as I grew up during a decade (the '80s) when cross-dressing was still very much taboo (more so than today, I'm sure), and still, I believe, technically a mental illness.

Anonymous Woman said...


"So when I deal face-to-face with such people, and it's obvious to them that I'm not ashamed in the slightest, nor trying to hide my "shameful secret", they have severe cognitive dissonance."

My experience exactly.

Anonymous said...

fMRI scans are not a very good way to look at consciousness. They are based on many beliefs.
Read " Out of Our Heads". We are part of our outter world so our thoughts are also outside our heads.

Kathrin said...

I have found that people respond better in many cases to openness.

A am very tall; I ended up talking with a former NBA player while sharing an emergency exit row.

He was genuinely curious; I spent about 3 hours answering questions. They were sincere, and not accusatory - transsexuality is something that effects me, but doesn't define me.

I am not afraid, I am not ashamed, and I am not "in your face" either. If I looked guilty, people would think there's something wrong. Instead, I'm simply a girl with an issue I deal with.

It's hard for rational people to get _too_ upset at that.

Lux Mentis said...

I think if you start by lying (failing to be true) to yourself, you start building out from a very dodgy foundation. That rarely ends well.

For the most part, I think it doesn't matter if I deal with someone honest or true. What matters is how that person acts, not what is in their mind as I will not condone a perspective that advocates the crime being the thought. If you never consider cheating in a business deal because it never occurs to you or because it occurs to you and you don't do it, doesn't matter to me. you didn't cheat me and that's what I'll judge you by - the things you actually did. What you thought should be between you and the Almighty (whatever that may or may not be).

I always associate shame as something you should feel if you knowingly did something wrong, not if you got caught. You should be 'ashamed' of your conduct. Guilt, to me, was always something assigned by others or by the courts. It's interesting that your depiction is almost the exact opposite.

Your decisions about your own sexuality and being honest and doing what had to be done are your own and should never have been a matter of social stigma or shame. That some people see it that way is a sign of their short-sightedness.

I still remember you being incredibly nice to me from the first time we talked on the Internet, what must be the better part of a decade and a half ago. You were a great ambassador for your country (though that probably never entered your mind) and a warm and generous sort of person.

I also point one thing about true vs. honest - I'm not sure it applies, in the body of a single person, to all things. I'm sure there are things that some of us would be tempted to do, but other things it would never even occur to us to be tempted to do (or be dishonest about). So the bifurcation of people into the true and the honest may well be an issue by issue division. Further reason why I will only use people's actions as criteria for judgement.

Also, of course, you rarely can tell if a person was tempted or just true, so functionaly you can only judge on actions observed most times.

Laserlight said...

I don't agree with the logic of the "resisted temptation" being better than the "didn't occur to me"; if you increase the pressure, the latter might have the idea but that doesn't mean he'll succumb to temptation.
As for me, I've had some pretty criminal ideas, but I usually don't have "temptation" to act on them. Not sure how you'd classify me.