It’s Not That Hard to Make People Do Bad Things

How many people do you think you’d have to approach before you could convince one to tell a lie?

Don't let the badges fool you - most people are willing to cheat.
Don't let the badges fool you - most people are willing to cheat. Courtesy of Flickr user Kara Shallenberg

You're a good person, right? You'd probably be sorted into Gryffindor—you're honest, loyal, definitely not a troublemaker (unless it's for good). This is how many, many people think of themselves. So how many do you think you'd have to approach before you could convince one to tell a lie?

That's exactly what a recent study tried to find out. The researchers asked for people's guesses, and then compared those gut instincts to an results from an experiment that found how many people it actually took. Students who were surveyed guessed they'd have to ask 8.47 people on their campus before they could get three people agree to a lie. They were way off. It took barely more than 4. Overall, 91 percent of the subjects in the study overestimated how hard it would be to get someone to tell a lie.

Then the researchers upped the ante. Christian Jarrett at Research Digest explains the next test:

A second study was similar but this time 25 participants estimated how many people they'd need to ask before 3 agreed to vandalise a library book by writing the word "pickle" inside in pen (ostensibly as part of a prank the participant was involved in). The participants' average estimate was that they'd need to ask 10.73 people on campus; in fact they needed only to approach an average of 4.7 people before 3 agreed to this task. Eighty-seven per cent of participants underestimated how compliant people would be.

In the final round, the researchers turned to the internet and asked people to evaluate everything from buying underaged kids beer, illegally downloading movies or charging a dinner to your work account. If a friend or colleague nudged them towards the behavior, people felt much more uncomfortable than if that friend advised them to be good. But those who were doing the nudging had no idea. In other words, "instigators failed to recognize the social pressure they levied on actors through simple unethical suggestions, that is, the discomfort actors would experience by making a decision that was inconsistent with the instigator's suggestion."

Older, more famous experiments like the Milgram test or the Stanford Prison Experiment have proved that people will do worse things than we might expect. But this test shows that not only are people more willing to misbehave than they think, but they're also totally unaware of how their nudging might influence their friends.

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