March 02, 2010
Darkness Spurs Selfishness

Selfishness comes out at night.

Psychological scientists Chen-Bo Zhong, Vanessa K. Bohns (both of University of Torontoís Rotman School of Management), and Francesca Gino (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) conducted three experiments to test whether darkness can license dishonest and self-interested behaviors. In the first experiment, participants were placed in a dimly or well-lit room and received a brown envelope that contained $10 along with one empty white envelope. They were then asked to complete a worksheet with 20 matrices, each consisting of 12 three-digit numbers. The participants had five minutes to find two numbers in each matrix that added up to 10. The researchers left it up to the participants to score their own work and for each pair of numbers correctly indentified they could keep $0.50 from their supply of money. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to place the remainder of their money into the white envelope on their way out. While there was no difference in actual performance, participants in the slightly dim room cheated more and thus earned more undeserved money than those in a well-lit room.

People who wear sunglasses are more selfish.

In the second experiment, some participants wore a pair of sunglasses and others wore clear glasses while interacting with an ostensible stranger in a different room (in actuality participants interacted with the experimenter). Each person had $6 to allocate between him-or herself and the recipient and could keep what he or she didnít offer. Participants wearing sunglasses behaved more selfishly by giving significantly less than those wearing clear glasses.

People who wear sunglasses feel more anonymous.

In the third experiment, the scientists replicated the previous experiment and then measured the extent to which participants felt anonymous during the experiment. Once again, those wearing sunglasses gave significantly less money and furthermore, those wearing sunglasses reported feeling more anonymous during the study.

One can see this as an argument against shopping for used cars in the evening. Oh, and don't trust the sales guy wearing sunglasses.

But what about ethical selfishness? If you find it hard to say no to a manipulative person then put on some shades.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 March 02 09:59 PM  Brain Economics

LAG said at March 3, 2010 6:41 AM:

Three thoughts occurred to me while reading through this interesting piece (and I plan to read the study later). First, what mechanism is suggested? Second, I wonder if Internet interactions are analogous? It would seem that there is some parallel where "sunglasses anonymity" is concerned. And, third, could it be that Isaac Asimov was on to something in his story, "Nightfall?"

random said at March 3, 2010 9:50 AM:

"People who wear sunglasses are more selfish."

What if they're on a mission from god?

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said at March 6, 2010 1:31 PM:


FredP said at March 6, 2010 4:23 PM:

How do any two three-digit numbers add up to just 10? Perhaps they meant added up to 1000.

Terrence said at March 6, 2010 4:35 PM:

FredP - could they be DECIMAL NUMBERS? You know like, 3.35, 3.35. and 3.30?

Hucbald said at March 6, 2010 4:57 PM:

"My prrrrrecious!"

Jim said at March 6, 2010 5:00 PM:

Big high five to Random.

kyle said at March 6, 2010 7:42 PM:

Sunglasses? Mirrored ray-bans on the guy towering over you asking for your license, registration, and where you are headed on a dark and stormy night. Eyes are the windows to the soul, blind men tell no secrets, and character is what you do when you think nobody is looking.

And anon on the internet? I know 2 other people with my first and last name in the same town. Might even have the same ISP and IP subnet. But i know this friend of a friend that used to get a kick out of the reactions other anonymous people displayed when reacting to flamebait. I of course am a fine upstanding individual of impeccable taste, am 6'5" 250 lbs and can bench press a small automobile with a trunk full of acai berries when i'm not making 6 figures a month with this one technique that is the key to success on the internet. If you can't spot the opus dei couple at a baptist revival, you'll be a dupe on the internet too, anon or not. People love self-deception, for some reason. Convince yourself people can't see into your soul through your eyes, and you'll make a good poker player.

Rich said at March 7, 2010 1:59 AM:

I always get a chuckle at scientific experiments trying to prove the obvious.
Criminal activity increases at night. Does anyone dispute that?
The author of the book of John from the Bible was way ahead of the curve on "...whether darkness can license dishonest and self-interested behaviors."
He quotes Jesus as saying, "And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed."
John 3:19-20

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