Tangents From a Psychologist II: The Dangers of Jumping Disciplines, Research Time, 04/06/2015

Continued from last post . . . Since I made yesterday's post, I discovered that one of my friends who I knew when I was at McMaster now works for Dan Ariely's consultancy firm. She assures me that the hundreds of articles he's authored, co-authored, or otherwise shepherded to paywalled publication over the last couple of decades indeed back up all the conclusions of his books with all the technical know-how I thought would be there. Nonetheless, I'd still like to offer a critical perspective on something else of what I've read in Dishonesty, coming from my own place as a professional-level philosopher.

Here's an experiment that gave me pause when I read about it in Dishonesty. Ariely owns a vending machine that he uses for experimental purposes. He set up his machine so the listed price of each item was 75¢, but it would dispense items for free: You put your money in, made a selection, and it gave you your selection and all your money back.

One observed behaviour was that, when someone’s friend was nearby, they would call them over to have some free candy from the vending machine together. Ariely describes the experiment in a chapter where he talks about work he did to test a hypothesis that people will cheat more when they’re in a social context where many people are being dishonest.

So he interprets the vending machine experiment this way. Page 195: “If our friends cross the ethical line with us, won’t that make our action seem more socially acceptable in our own eyes?” He sees the student as knowing she’s doing something wrong, and the presence of her friend is a way to rationalize the wrong.

I see a different interpretation, though. Ariely doesn’t describe how his vending machine was branded, but most vending machines are owned by large companies, some of the largest in the world. Most vending machines, when broken such that they give their product away for free, are usually repaired within a day or two. The company doesn’t lose much, and they can afford to lose it. They usually budget some losses for times when their vending machines break.

Why wouldn't you want to share with your friend?
Friendship is for sharing.
A vending machine is part of such a large system that the actual harm of taking advantage of a few dollars worth of chocolate bars is no harm at all. Because it’s no harm, there’s nothing immoral about taking advantage of it. You understand this if you understand the economies of scale in which most vending machines exist. 

You call your friend over not because you need a social setting to make your dishonest behaviour seem more acceptable. You call your friend over because you had a lucky moment and found an opportunity for a couple of free Snickers, and you want to share your small largesse with a friend because friends are for sharing.

Ariely doesn’t mention this interpretation in his account of this experiment in Dishonesty, and I suspect that it’s because it’s outside the conceptual framework in which he’s developed his experiment in the first place. He literally wouldn’t have thought about it.

My interpretation has no role for dishonesty. It actually says that, because of the way someone may understand how vending machines are typically managed, they wouldn’t see their behaviour as dishonest because there’s nothing immoral to be dishonest about. Only someone with a very juvenile sense of cheating and stealing – as if I were taking money directly from the CEO’s pocket – would think of this scenario as theft.

Here’s the other reason why I may miss his point. I have expertise at an advanced level, but it’s in philosophy – qualitative and secondary research, with enough know-how for quantitative research that I can design a survey, but I still have to figure out how to work some of the computer programs to interpret quantitative data. I’m not a psychology researcher.

I’m a philosopher. That’s my discipline. It’s the genre of my non-fiction work, the field I trained in for several years, the field in whose academic journals I’ve been published. One of the most basic, widespread, and effective forms of philosophical criticism is to think of an interpretation or an angle that has escaped a writer’s notice. Giving some interpretation of his work that is outside his presumptions. Finding his blind spot.

I found a blind spot in how Ariely interprets his own experiments. Having framed his overall research problem as an exploration of human dishonesty, he isn’t able to interpret an experimental result as having nothing to do with dishonesty. 

Or maybe he’d interpret my interpretation of the vending machine experiment as an extended rationalization (that’s a little meta, as I’m writing about it in an extremely long sentence with a massive bracketed phrase) of my own tendency toward dishonesty in the situation.

We can learn so much from a vending machine. This is
probably my favourite thing to happen to Pete in all of
30 Rock.
Yet I can’t help but think that I’m on to something about Ariely’s research framework. He’s developed all these experiments to explore human dishonesty. So he’s going to interpret all the behaviour as expressions of dishonesty or ways we have to work around dishonesty. Some philosophy-trained writer asking him whether his conception of dishonesty is adequate to how people actually think is only going to complicate matters. 

In the discipline of philosophy, this kind of critique is legitimate. In the discipline of psychology, I’m frankly just not sure. How legitimate my critiques can be will affect the scope of all my non-fiction writing projects because I draw my sources from a lot of different disciplines into a philosophical framework.

So I don’t even know if my third interpretation of the vending machine experiment would even be appropriate. I can’t check my critique against the results because I don’t have the time or money or institutional access to get behind their paywalls. Because Dishonesty is a popular psychology book, I can’t be sure yet how much Ariely is genuinely representing the core of his work to a mass audience, and how much his presentation is influenced by slippery Gladwellism.

I’m just kind of scratching my head.

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