Ever found yourself doing something that you know you probably shouldn’t be doing? And, when you’re doing said unscrupulous act, are you constantly wary of anyone who might discover and judge you? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. It turns out this fear of being caught is part of our evolved psychology. Acts of moral dubiousness are seen as being far worse when in the presence of another – as a study published this week has shown.
To test this idea, the authors of the paper wrote two stories of malfeasance – one involving taking money from a missing wallet, the other about lying on a C.V.The stories were also accompanied by either a photo of a snooping pair of eyes or a control picture of some lovely flowers. When the stories were associated with a judging observer people rated the acts as significantly less morally acceptable.
We are intensely social animals, descended from species of apes that have evolved to survive and flourish in the company of others. As the human brain has expanded over time, the size of the social groups we live in has similarly increased. Indeed, this has been proposed as the reason are brains are so big in the first place. Robin Dunbar, who came up with the idea, has noted that you can even predict how big a group an ape lives in by the size of its neocortex. For humans, this number is about 150.
In a social world, the opinions of others is of vital importance. Many animal behaviours can be explained by reciprocal altruism – you do something for me, and I’ll repay the debt in the future. In our modern capitalist world, this happens all the time. Bakers earn money by selling bread, which they can use to buy meat from the butcher, and so on. Cheaters, individuals who take the benefits from others without paying costs are punished – either by ostracism or violence or in a lowering of their reputation. Being known as a liar or a thief wont generally win you any favours. Reputation, here seems to be the key. People who lie and steal, are breaking the social conventions. people who obey them publicly will improve their social reputation which is why people judged those stories with a witness as morally worse. As the authors note “indeed, failure to express our support for prevailing moral norms may arouse suspicion.”
So next time you see a wallet lying on the ground, make sure to look over your shoulder before you pocket the cash.