How Thinking About Time Can Make You a Better Person

Money turns us into liars and cheats. Even thinking about it can make us behave unethically. Here's how to trick ourselves into winning back our scruples.
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Are you rich? That's great. But bad news: You're probably an awful cheater. Science says.

"The increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley wrote in a widely-cited paper showing that the "upper-class" was more likely to lie, cheat, violate driving laws, and even take candy from children.

It's not just having money that makes us dishonest. Even thinking about it—lustrous gold coins, money trees, year-end bonuses—makes us us more likely to behave unethically. A new study this week both indicts the immoral intoxication of money and offers a simple solution: When you make people think about time rather than money, they become self-reflective and less likely to do the wrong thing. 

In four experiments, Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Cassie Mogilner (Wharton) primed subjects with words associated with money or time. Then they asked them to complete certain tasks like a number matrix and a sentence-unscrambling test. The participants, who could lie about their performance, rewarded themselves with money for each task they allegedly completed.

Nearly 90 percent of those primed to think about money cheated, compared to just 42 percent in the time condition. 

Thinking about time makes us reflect on who we are, the professors concluded. Self-reflection makes us honest because we evaluate ourselves in the long-term, rather than focus on the clear short-term advantages from cheating. "Even good people can and often do bad things," Gino said in an email conversation. "People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral."

In previous research, Gino and the behavioral economist Dan Ariely predicted that creativity enabled dishonesty. People who could produce more novel, useful ideas in general could also come up with creative ways to rationalize unethical behavior. ("Sure, I got her fired, but she can better reach her potential in another industry"; "I'm not stealing from this national bank, I'm adjusting for the implicit subsidies it enjoys as a Too-Big-To-Fail institution"; etc) Stimulating creative thought in their study increased dishonest behavior by blurring the line between morality and immorality.

But in this research, Gino showed that self-reflection highlights that line between right and wrong. "In a sense, it reduces their ability to engage in this creative explanation for why what they are doing is okay," she said.

It's tempting to over-interpret a single controlled experiment. But the evidence that money confounds our morality is deeper than a single paper: There's Gino's former research that we're more likely to cheat when primed with thousands of $1 bills than just two dozen, Piff's research on the candy-from-baby-stealing "upper class", the report that we're twice as likely to betray a partner if primed with the words "Wall Street", and more. When we repeatedly learn that the most profitable sectors of the country occasionally suspend their sense of right and wrong, perhaps we should suspend our disbelief.

(Image inspired by FastCo Design)
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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