Can You Be Destined to Cheat?

"Seinfeld" fans will remember the classic scene in which Jerry, during his stand-up act, is heckled by a relapsed alcoholic. Jerry decides to give the drunk some of his own medicine:

Jerry: "Hey, it's not my fault you're back on the wagon."
Drunk: "It's off the wagon."
Jerry: "In the old days, how do you think they got the alcohol from town to town?"
Drunk: "I don't know."
Jerry: "On the wagon. Don't you think they broke into a couple of those bottles along the way?"
Drunk: "You can't drink on a wagon. It would be too bumpy."
Jerry: "They had smooth trails. What about the Cumberland Gap?"

The drunk may be slurring his words here, but he actually has a better understanding of idiom than Jerry. He has indeed fallen off the wagon of sobriety, though by the end of the episode he will happily be back on that metaphorical wagon.

It's a safe bet that both these phrases are getting a lot of use this month, as millions of Americans resolve to put the holiday hangovers behind them. Some will try to moderate their drinking, others may take a vacation from booze, while still others may finally decide it's time to call it quits. But most alcoholics will fall, with a collective thud, off the wagon.

Why is that? Well, there is actually a fairly acrimonious debate taking place about the origins and nature of alcoholism, part of a larger debate about genetic determinism and free will. Some see alcoholism as a disease, perhaps even a genetic legacy; alcoholics are not unlike diabetics according to this view, cursed with a disease that is wickedly difficult to manage. Others disparage such genetic fatalism, arguing that it makes victims out of people and erodes personal responsibility and morality. In this view a lopsided belief in the power of genes is itself part of the problem: it takes away free will and gives addicts an excuse to behave dishonestly and unethically. Why fight destiny? Bottoms up.

Surprisingly, the link between fatalistic beliefs and unethical behavior has never been examined scientifically—until now. In two recent experiments, psychologists Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia decided to explore this knotty philosophical issue in the lab, and they figured out an innovative way to do it. They set out to see if they could make otherwise honest people cheat and lie, simply by manipulating their beliefs in free will.

Here's how they set up the experiment. They gave college students a mathematics exam, but the test was really a sham. The math problems appeared on a computer screen, and they told the subjects that, because of a computer glitch, the answers would appear on the screen as well. To prevent the answers from showing up, the students had to hit the space bar as soon as the problems appeared. In fact, the scientists were observing to see if the participants surreptitiously used the answers instead of solving the problems honestly on their own.

Prior to the math test, the scientists had used a well-established method to "prime" the subjects' beliefs regarding fate and free will. Basically, some of the students were taught that science had disproven the notion of free will, and that the illusion of free will was a mere artifact of the brain's biochemistry. Others got no such indoctrination. When they ran the cheating experiment, the results were clear: those with weaker convictions about their power to control their own destiny were much more apt to cheat when given the opportunity.

This is what moral philosophers call "passive cheating." It's the equivalent of having a sales clerk give you too much change and not choosing to give it back. Vohs and Schooler wanted to go a step further, to see if they could get people to cheat with unmistakable intention and effort. So in a second study they set up a different deception: they had the subjects take a very difficult cognitive test, and they put them on the honor system. That is, the subjects solved a series of problems without supervision, then scored themselves. They also "rewarded" themselves $1 for each correct answer, and in order to collect the reward they had to walk across the room and help themselves to money in a manila envelope. So there was nothing the least bit passive or ambiguous about this dishonesty; it was lying and stealing, plain and simple.

As with the first experiment, the psychologists had previously primed them to believe in either free will or fate. And the results were just as robust. As reported in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science, those with a stronger belief in their own power and control were less apt to steal money than were those with a weakened belief.

I don't know about you, but I find this disturbing. There is strong evidence that since the 1960s people have had a steadily diminishing sense of control over their own lives. The genetic revolution—including the recent decoding of the genome—has strongly reinforced this deterministic world view. There has been a concurrent and well-documented increase in cheating over the same period. Could the two be connected?

Back to alcoholism: addicts are notorious liars and cheaters. They need no added motivation to be fatalistic or dishonest. This isn't to say that we as a society should deny the genetic model of addiction if at the end of the day the scientific evidence points that way. But these findings might help explain why the most effective treatments for alcohol and drug abuse demand that people be honest with themselves and take personal responsibility for staying on the wagon.