The Experiment That Makes People Face Up to Their Moral Hypocrisy

Here's a delicious little experiment that give us a look at the seedy immorality of its research participants. No, it's not the Milgram Experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment. It's as simple as a coin toss.

A group of people are brought in for an experiment, and asked to choose from one of two different activities. Neither activity is entirely specified, but one comes with a reward. The participants are told that, while performing this activity, they have a chance to earn raffle tickets for a reward. The other activity is described as boring, and gives them no chance to earn rewards of any kind.

The research subject gets to pick a task, and they're told they can assign whichever task they don't pick to another participant. (This second participant doesn't exist, and therefore cannot be disappointed with their lot, but the research subject doesn't know that.) Not surprisingly, when they're given a free choice, eight out of ten subjects give themselves the raffle ticket task.

In a subsequent experiment, the participants get a sheet of instructions, detailing each task, and gently suggesting that flipping a coin would be the fairest way to decide whether they get the rewarding task, or the "other participant" does. Only half of them do flip the coin. The non-flippers stay at the standard rate of selfishness. Between eighty and ninety percent of them assign themselves the better task. Oddly enough - the same goes for the people who do flip the coin. The coin is fair. The people? Not so much. Between ninety and ninety-five percent of the flippers still assign themselves the better task.

So how do you feel about this? Do you feel sympathy with the human frailty of these people, knowing that they didn't actually screw a real person over? Or do you feel righteously angry with the selfish coin-flippers who, in the interview afterwards, said that flipping the coin was the moral way to settle things, but ignored the results of the coin flip?

Maybe you should flip a coin to decide.

[Via In a Very Different Voice: Unmasking Moral Hypocrisy, Why Don't Moral People Act Morally?]