Most of us would consider ourselves honest people—but that doesn’t stop us from fudging the rules in favor of our team, giving an inflated report of our own performance, or buying knock-off accessories rather than the legit version. At Wired, Joanna Pearlstein talks to behavioral economist Dan Ariely about what leads us to lie, cheat, and steal—and rationalize our behavior to ourselves as not being so bad.
Wired: You write that people find it easier to rationalize stealing when they’re taking things rather than actual cash. You did an experiment where you left Coca-Colas in a dorm refrigerator along with a pile of dollar bills. People took the Cokes but left the cash. What’s going on there?
“It’s a jungle out there,” you might hear a big shot Wall Street type say about the high-stakes world of high finance. Yet, the jungle-ecosystem metaphor may be most applicable not to the competitiveness of the world’s financial system, but to its vulnerability.
For an unusual study in this week’s edition of the journal Nature, an economist (Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England) and a zoologist (Robert May of Oxford University) team up to argue that the banking and financial system is much like a natural system in the way that a key hit to one area caused the cascading wave of doom, which wrecked the world economy in 2008.
One way to see the resemblance is to think of the world’s many banks as the bean plants in a vast industrial mega-farm, where the nearly identical plants are all vulnerable to the same pest.
When a biological or social system is full of uniform individuals—be they bean plants or banks—one shared weakness can spell disaster for the whole lot. Even when a new beneficial trait or tool enters the picture, if all organisms adopt it, as many financial institutions did with credit default swaps and other risky trades that led to the financial meltdown of 2007-08, a tenuous balance can be quickly upset. [Scientific American]
Before the collapse, Haldane and May say, the financial sector believed that the high level of connectivity between financial firms was a way to lessen risk. No one firm was at particularly high risk, it was thought, which made it unlikely that any firm would fail. Yet little thought was given to the failure of the system as a whole.
A new study out this week has rekindled an old economics fight: When countries get richer, do they get happier?
For Richard Easterlin, the answer has always been “no.” He became famous in economics circles beginning in the 1970s for articulating his namesake idea, the “Easterlin paradox.” He found that when you compare rich countries to poor countries, the people in the wealthy nations were more satisfied. But when a country’s economic position improved over time, the people in that country didn’t get happier.
“If you look across countries and compare happiness and GDP [gross domestic product] per capita, you find that the higher the country’s income, the more likely it is to be happier,” Easterlin said. “So the expectation based on point-in-time data is if income goes up, then happiness will go up. The paradox is, when you look at change over time, that doesn’t happen.” [LiveScience]
Now Easterlin is back with a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one that extends his argument to even more countries.
The new study, Easterlin said, is the broadest finding about the paradox so far. The researchers gathered between 10 and 34 years of happiness data from 17 Latin American countries, 17 developed countries, 11 Eastern European countries transitioning from socialism to capitalism and nine-less developed countries. They found no relationship between economic growth and happiness in any case. Even in a country like China, the researchers wrote, where per capita income has doubled in 10 years, happiness levels haven’t budged. South Korea and Chile have shown similarly astronomical economic growth with no increase in satisfaction. [LiveScience]
A report (pdf) by the Washington Toxics Coalition found that the potentially harmful plastic chemical Bisphenol A is present in low levels on most money and about half of thermal paper receipts tested in a small study. As many researchers are concerned about the possible health effects of the hormone-disrupting chemical, this new evidence of BPA’s ubiquity in our modern lives is setting off new alarms. But are the levels found on money and receipts significant?
While most customers worry about ingesting BPA due to its presence in plastic bottles, canned foods linings, and other plastic containers, it can also be absorbed through the skin, says the coalition. Thermal paper (frequently used in receipts) is often made with a coating of BPA powder, which could be an unexplored exposure route to the chemical–especially for cashiers.
The coalition tested 22 thermal paper receipts and 22 dollar bills collected from around the country. Eleven of the receipts were positive for BPA (comprising up to 2.2 percent of the total receipt weight) and 21 of the dollar bills were, though at much lower levels. The researchers suggest that BPA may be tranferred from receipts to money when people handle them together or stuff them together into a wallet.
“Our findings demonstrate that BPA cannot be avoided, even by the most conscious consumer,” said Erika Schreder, Staff Scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition and lead author of the report. “This unregulated use of large amounts of BPA is having unintended consequences, including exposure to people when we touch receipts.” [press release]