'Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the greatest cheat of them all?'

While money is behind many things that are good and progressive about human lives, it is more notoriously known for being the root of unethical behavior

Maria Isabel Garcia

Published: 3:0 AM August 19, 2018

Updated: 12:52 PM August 19, 2018

If you were someone living around 9,000 BC, you would have carried livestock around in your "wallet" as proof that you were "loaded." Livestock then was literally and metaphorically "big bucks" – it was the ancient equivalent of a bank account, or what you're worth economically. "Big bucks" was the beginning of some form of currency, an exchangeable form that carried "value." Livestock then could be exchanged for another set of livestock, or another set of valuable things.

What followed after that in history was a string of forms of currencies that you can sing to the tune of the theme song of The Big Bang Theory: there were shells, beads, metal coins, even some leather bills in some cultures, and then paper bills began to form, and then now, all forms of e-money, including bitcoin. And then there are also the money locked in stocks, in assets, even in future projects. It all started with the "big bucks."

At some point in our moneyed history, we humans started developing a peculiar relationship with money. It started to have a major role in our behavior, and recorded human history became a running current of explosive scandalous chapters that can trace their roots back to money. Open any history book and you will find that power is to wealth what magnet is to iron. Open any family history and you will find personal histories that parallel the historic wars over power and wealth. The story of being human is "denominated" in literature, science, and art but also, resoundingly, in coins.

So while money is behind many things that are good and progressive about human lives, it is more notoriously known for being the root of unethical behavior. If money is indeed poison for our souls, then what could be the antidote?

Many of you would probably say that it is not money that causes us to be greedy but the love of money. I was told firsthand by a close friend about a Filipino family here who used to own a now-failed real estate company. My friend visited the house of the family who apparently loved money so much that they actually had a room filled with mounds of it where they routinely had their photos taken – their children had baby photos playing with mounds of money. I have yet to come across a study that has focused on the ethical trajectory of people who literally live with and sit on their money.

But what I have come across are studies like this one that says just thinking about money (and not actually professing a love for it, as many humans in history and in the news have so expertly demonstrated) makes one act in more self-preserving ways. Those who think about money were less helpful, more solitary, and preferred less intimacy. Those who were reminded of money were more motivated to work on challenging tasks and to take on more work. Money, indeed, is a golden motivator, but being reminded of it also makes you forget how equally powerful money can be in changing someone else's life for the better.

What is even more interesting about money is that when we are unconsciously reminded of it (versus when we are made to think about time), we tend to cheat more. A study on time, money, and morality bore this out. Researchers of the study made people arrange words in a sentence that contained words that reminded them of money, and a separate sentence that reminded them of time. And then they were tested to work on puzzles in an activity that gave them opportunities to misbehave, specifically, to cheat without sanction. Those who were made to work on the sentence that contained words about money were more likely to cheat than those who worked on the "time" sentence. The subjects were not even promised any money for correctly solving the puzzles, but still, those who were primed to think about money were more likely to cheat than those who were primed to think about time.

In the same study, there was also a difference in the likelihood of people cheating when they were told that the research was an "intelligence test" or a "personality test," after they underwent priming for time or money. When they were made to think it was an intelligence test, they were more likely to cheat, but when told it was a personality test, they were less likely to do so.

The same study also revealed the effect of mirrors on ethical behavior. It made me toy with the idea of strongly suggesting that our government offices have mirrors everywhere, installed particularly in front of desks of government officials and employees alike. Apparently, seeing yourself in front of a mirror while doing something that has ethical implications forces you to reflect on your act that very moment and gets you on a trajectory where you will more likely not cheat. However, this idea also easily made me imagine a scenario where some hanky-panky will also happen in the procurement of mirrors for government, thus expanding my suggestion for mirrors to be installed also in the offices of government's suppliers. And just like the obvious truth behind the scene of the famous fairy tale, I can imagine the non-verbal exchange in every government desk transpiring this way:

Official: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest cheat of them all?"
Mirror: "You are."

(And the official rethinks and does the right thing.)

But then I wake up, knowing that scene would be naïve as it is comical, as this all presupposes that the decision to be unethical only happens on one's official desk. But we all know the real executive office for moral decisions sits right between our ears, in the inner life we each have inside our skulls. That makes it mobile and, ergo, a moving target.

What the studies really reveal is if people are first given time to reflect on what they are about to do and who they are, they are less likely to be unethical. So look at yourself in the mirror, look at pictures of yourself, your family and friends, and think about how time allows you to pass this way only once. Science says it will make you less likely to be unethical. It is not a 100% guarantee, because we are talking about humans who are in the first place never a 100% anything. But I think we should take our chances when a scientific insight on how our souls can go wrong is offered. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.