Psychology has a bad habit of turning up unpleasant truths, and this is one of them. If you make doing the wrong thing easier than doing the right thing, then most people will just go with the immoral flow.
At the risk of spoiling any remaining Thanksgiving good cheer, let's consider the nature of evil. (Yeah, that ought to do it.) Most people will say they wouldn't cheat or lie to get ahead, and they certainly wouldn't refuse to help a person in need. And that's sort of true...but only so long as our sense of guilt or shame gets activated. According to a recent study, if there's no pressure to do the right thing, then people probably won't.
Researcher Rimma Teper explains:
"People are more likely to cheat and make immoral decisions when their transgressions don't involve an explicit action. If they can lie by omission, cheat without doing much legwork, or bypass a person's request for help without expressly denying them, they are much more likely to do so."
To test this idea, the researchers had subjects take a math test on the computer. Before the test, the subjects were informed of one of two glitches in the test. In one case, pressing the space bar would make the answers pop up. In the other, failing to press the enter key within five seconds would make the answers appear. Not surprisingly, the group that just had to sit back and let the answers appear was far more likely to cheat than their counterparts.
That might seem relatively harmless, but another test showed how this can affect people's wellbeing. Subjects were asked whether they would be willing to help a learning disabled student complete part of the test. In one instance, the subjects were provided boxes marked "Yes" and "No" and asked to tick whether they would help or not. In the other group, the subjects had to actively click on a link that would take them to another page where they could then volunteer. If they just pressed "continue", they wouldn't be asked again to volunteer.
Teper explains what the team suspects is going on here:
"It seems to be more difficult for people to explicitly deny their help, by clicking 'no,' than it is for them to simply click 'continue' and elude doing the right thing. We suspect that emotion plays an important role in driving this effect. When people are confronted with actively doing the right thing or the wrong thing, there are a lot of emotions involved – such as guilt and shame – that guide them to make the moral choice. When the transgression is more passive, however, we saw more people doing the wrong thing, and we believe this is because the moral emotions in such situations are probably less intense,"
The researchers point out this raises some intriguing points about how best to solicit help from others. Regardless of how good or bad a person might be otherwise, it seems forcing a person to make an active, moral decision is going to get far better results than if a person is given any ability to passively ignore the request.