5 Scientific Ways to Trick Yourself into Being a Good Person
One of our favorite subjects is how your brain tricks you into acting like a dick and other destructive habits. Well, we don't want to always be negative here. Are there ways you can trick yourself for the better? Sure. For instance ...
Signing Your Name at the Top Makes You More Honest
If someone handed you a form and told you to sign it, without specifying where, you'd probably do it on the bottom -- that's been the convention for hundreds of years, so you'd have to be some sort of jackass to mess things up by signing at the top of the page, right? Well, that might be so, but it turns out that signing at the top also predisposes you to become a more ethical person.
"Shit. I guess I won't kill those guys."
Yep, it turns out that whether you lie or not can be influenced by something as mundane as the placement of your signature, and it may sound bizarre, but there's a perfectly rational explanation for it.
In one study, researchers gave participants two different forms. On one form, they had to answer a math test, and the higher their score, the more money they'd be given. For the second form, they had to file claims for reimbursement of certain expenses. But here's the thing: Both forms were completely self-reported, so they could put down whatever they wanted.
Which is why half the participants claimed their name was "Speed McSexhaver."
On some forms, the signature was required at the top, and on others, it was asked for at the bottom. And what do you know: On average, people who were made to sign their names at the top reported lower math scores and also filed for fewer reimbursements. Unless those people just happened to be dumber and more forgetful, this means that signing at the top makes you more honest.
But why would that happen? This is actually the result of a psychological phenomenon called the signature effect -- when we write down our names, we are subconsciously reminded of who we are and what we aspire to be. And whether you believe it or not, most people aspire to be good, and good guys don't generally lie.
"Unless it's about condoms -- then it's time for the candy wrapper gambit."
So when we write our signatures before we are forced to decide if we'll lie or not, we're subconsciously throttling that tiny devil inside of us that makes us do bad things. On the other hand, when we write it at the bottom after filling out the form, the effect is made redundant, since we've already lied our asses off.
Text Messaging Makes You Less Likely to Lie
The digital era introduced a plethora of new ways for people to behave like douchebags -- for example, breaking up with someone over text message wasn't really in the average jerk's playbook 20 years ago. The older you are, the more you probably distrust this whole "texting" fad; movies and shows have taught us to associate sending text messages with gossipy teenagers, cheating spouses, and shady double agents in Martin Scorsese movies.
However, texting isn't as bad as you think: Researchers from the University of Michigan have found that people are less likely to lie through text messages.
"Where's the 'I'll try to make it to your party' emoticon? Oh well, I'll just tell her to eat shit."
Half of the participants in the study were asked questions through text, the other half in person. They had to answer some simple numerical questions, like "How many songs do you have on your iPod?" along with somewhat more embarrassing things like "How many times have you gotten drunk this month?" or, we don't know, "How many episodes of My Little Pony have you wanked to?"
As it turns out, the people who answered through text messages gave more honest answers than the rest -- they admitted to drinking more and engaged less in "satisficing," which is the act of rounding up your answer to a number ending in zero when you can't be bothered to give a specific figure. If you've ever agreed to take a poll and instantly regretted it, then you're definitely guilty of this.
"What answer gets you to shut up? That's the one I'm going with."
Even when the people who responded through text messages were doing other things, like walking down the street or shopping, they still gave more detailed responses than those who answered in person. This happens because when you're in person, you might feel stressed to answer quickly, so it's easier to make yourself lie, but when you're on the phone and whomever you're talking with isn't staring at you and judging you for every moment you delay, you feel more relaxed.
"How often do I smoke crack? At least twice a week."
So whatever that jackass texting in the cinema is talking about, you can take solace in the fact that at least he's being super honest about it.
Washing Your Hands Makes You Less Prejudiced
If you saw your friend shake hands with a member of another race and then immediately run to the bathroom and start furiously scrubbing himself, you'd probably think that person might be just a little bit racist. And if he's the type to have to disinfect his body after interacting with any other people, you probably see him as just terrified of the world in general. It might not be his fault that he's so afraid of microbes, but you would also assume that he is, on some level, intolerant. How else could you describe someone who thinks everyone else is "unclean"?
Well, science says there is a connection ... but it's not what you'd expect.
"Dude, that homeless guy peed on my hands. Stop overanalyzing."
There's an interesting evolutionary link between fear of germs and prejudice, and researchers from Harvard, Yale, and MIT conducted several experiments to learn more about it. At the height of the swine flu scare in 2009, they gathered the subjects and had half of them wash their hands with antimicrobial wipes while the other half left their hands encrusted in whatever filth they carried in with them. Everyone read a note explaining that washing your hands kills germs.
Then the subjects were asked to fill out a form that gauged how they felt about other groups, completely disconnected from the hand-washing part. For instance, they were asked how they felt about the obese, or drug addicts, or immigrants. Strangely, hand washers were less likely to be prejudiced toward others. For the next part of the experiment, they split the group between people who had been vaccinated for the flu and those who hadn't. Once again, the ones protected by the vaccine were more tolerant of people different from them.
"Y'know what? I'm cool with black people now."
The theory goes that back in the days when we were divided into tribes that were fairly isolated from each other, our immunity to each other's diseases wasn't so great (also, medical care at the time consisted of the tribe witch smashing you in the face with the bones of your ancestors until you stopped coughing). Every person from a foreign land would potentially bring enough diseases to wipe out your entire ancient empire, so we developed instincts to avoid people who look different.
Over time, the trait stuck around in our brains like an unwanted, extremely racist house guest. And even though we've consciously forgotten the germ part of the equation, just disinfecting your hands is enough to make you a little more comfortable around people who are different.
"Hand me some Purell. I'm getting nauseous."
Getting Something You Don't Deserve Makes You Want to Help Others
One of the most despicable beings in every workplace is the freeloader -- the guy who lucked his way to the top while others were using a slightly different strategy called "actually working." The Homer Simpson to everyone else's Frank Grimes, if you will. Which one of those two types of worker do you think would be more likely to take others under their wing and help them advance in their careers? The hard worker, right? Well, science says you couldn't be more wrong.
"Sure, I'll help you get ahead. Step one is to watch out for the foreman while I take a nap."
In one study, participants had to take a quiz and were told that the ones who got good scores would receive money. However, some of the participants who got low scores were given money, too, even though it was clear to everyone that they didn't deserve it.
"And the top prize goes to Gary, a dead possum we found on the street."
After they received their money, deserved or undeserved, the participants were asked to give advice to someone. Then, in another experiment, researchers pretended that they had dropped some erasers as they were leaving the room to see if the participants would pick them up or look away and whistle. So what happened? Those who received money they didn't deserve were more likely, in both cases, to be excellent to one another -- they gave time-consuming advice to someone else and picked up the erasers.
Meanwhile, the ones who actually worked for the money they got were most likely to do squat.
"Bitch, I got a good score on a math quiz. My debt to society is paid."
This is all about how humans deal with being envied. According to researcher Niels van de Ven, who organized this experiment, there are two types of envy: benign and malicious. Benign envy is when everyone knows you deserve what you have but they envy you anyway, whereas malicious envy is reserved for those who don't deserve what they have and, honestly, have it coming.
That second guy might look like a jerk to the world, but according to van de Ven, the fear of being envied actually drives him to be helpful to other people. That fear isn't present in those who deserve what they have, so they feel they can get away with being bigger total assholes.
"I have three Ph.D.s. I spend my weekends spitting into open caskets."
Counting Your Blessings ... Is Actually a Bad Idea
"Count your blessings." Our whole lives we're told that -- to be grateful for what we're given. After all, when you truly appreciate all of the gifts you've been given in life, you'll see how important it is to give back. But science, in its never-ending quest to turn everything you know into a lie, has set out to prove this one wrong, too.
"Next, we'll show mathematically that your mother doesn't love you."
This time, the study was performed on two fundraising groups. Members of both groups had to call people by phone and ask them to donate; they were told they'd all be paid by the hour, so the guy who made 200 calls was paid the same as the guy who made one and spent the rest of the day making booger sculptures. Then, one group was asked to write journal entries reminiscing about times when they were given something -- the "count your blessings" group. The other group wrote about times when they had given to others -- the "Look how awesome I am!" group.
After two weeks of that, it turned out that the group that wrote about giving gifts made 29 percent more phone calls than they used to, while the "count your blessings" group remained unchanged. So while counting their blessings may or may not have made them happier or given them more inner peace, it sure as hell didn't motivate them to help people more. The ones who celebrated their own prior generosity are the ones who stepped up.
"No need to thank me. I know how great I am."
In a second study, college students had to list three ways they had been given help or three ways they had helped others. When the students came back to pick up their $5 payment for the experiment, they were asked if they wanted to donate part of it for earthquake relief in Japan -- again, those who had to list their own good deeds were twice as likely to donate as the people in the other group. Bear in mind that we're talking about college students here, a group for whom $5 actually means something.
The researchers theorize that when we think about times when someone helped us, we might feel like we owe something to that specific person, and that gratitude fails to extend to everyone else. What's more, some might feel more indebted and dependent, so they become less inclined to help others. On the other hand, if you think about all the good you've done for others, you want to do more, because it felt good. So pat yourself on the back and think about how awesome you've been, champ. Success breeds success.
For more on what science has to say on our behavior, check out 6 Reasons Assholes Are Healthier (According to Science) and 5 Reasons Women Are as Shallow as Men (According to Science).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 3 Musicians Who Took Insane Risks to Play Awesome Gigs.