RADIO PRODUCER AND WRITER
Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke, gave a talk at the RSA about his research on lying, self-deception, and conflicts of interest. His studies tested the conditions in which people lie more and lie less, but his interest is in the question of rationalization: how do we accept that we are prone to lying and cheating and yet still consider ourselves generally good people?
In one study, he asked students to complete 20 math questions. Each correct answer was worth one dollar. After five minutes, he asked them to count the number of questions answered correctly, shred their paper, and tell the proctor their score. The shredder, of course, was rigged, and most students lied. But the pervasive effect was of small lies, not large ones. Most people answered four questions correctly and reported six. Here was rationalization in action. If we lie only a little bit, we can still consider ourselves good people. There is no internal conflict.
What happens when the subjects are shown an example of cheating being rewarded? In one variation on the study, an actor interrupted the test 30 seconds in. I’m finished, he said. What do I do? He was given $20 and left. At Carnegie Mellon, when the cheating actor was wearing a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, cheating as a whole went up. When he was wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, a rival school, cheating at Carnegie Mellon went down. When we see blatant cheating, Ariely says, we look for similar traits in the cheater. When the actor wore the Carnegie Mellon sweater, more Carnegie Mellon students found cheating acceptable. With the actor in the University of Pittsburgh sweater, the students found less in common with the actor, and were less able to rationalize their own cheating.
While Ariely suggested that his findings could illustrate aspects of the finance industry, I felt that his findings intersected with the research of Timothy Pachirat, from his book Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat worked in a Nebraska slaughterhouse for six months, first hanging livers in a cooler, then in the chutes leading cows into the knocking box, then as a quality control inspector. Dan Ariely suggests that rationalization is a way to defend yourself against the uncomfortable things you do for personal gain. Pachirat sees this firsthand in the chutes. All of the workers in the chutes shock the cows with cattle prods- as long as USDA inspectors are not around. Pachirat, uncomfortable with delivering constant pain to these confined animals, paddles the cattle into the knocking box. Infuriated, one of the other workers demand he use the cattle prod, insisting that the cattle do not go fast enough without the prod. Yet the vehemence of their insistence suggests that these seasoned workers are very uncomfortable with his compassion. Trying to rationalize causing pain to these cows becomes more difficult when you see a co-worker acting differently and questioning your actions. Rationalization becomes easier when everyone else acts the same.
In order to learn the most on the kill floor, Pachirat asks to be trained to use the airgun as a knocker. The chute workers are horrified, they find this work repugnant. There are 800 people who work in the slaughterhouse, and 120 who work on the kill floor. But what Pachirat finds is that everyone wants to ascribe the killing to one person, the knocker. The more distance between themselves and the knocker, the easier this is to believe.
One of the chute workers tells him that the knockers have to see a psychiatrist every few months, that the work messes with their heads. These are the people that have the most difficulty rationalizing their work. They are not protected by separation. There are also relatively few people who work as knockers, and only one works at a time. The knocker cannot look around and see anyone else in the same role. They are all alone in their work.
Ariely concludes by stating that people are constantly put in situations guaranteed to blind or distort their sense of morality. He is referring to the banking industry. But Pachirat found the exact same issue in the quality control department of the slaughterhouse.
The quality control workers begin their day at 5am, inspecting the entire slaughterhouse for any potential food safety violations. But their job, as repeated time and time again, is to ensure that there are no violation reports by USDA inspectors, which means hiding any food safety violations from the inspectors. Any time an inspector writes up a worker for handling meat improperly- by not cleaning his knife enough times, for instance- the worker must be “retrained,” as if the fault was in improper training. The truth is that the meat comes too fast. The cutting, separating, and trimming has to be done very quickly, and knife sanitation is less important than production volume. Food safety violations are the norm. The only true way to promote safety would be to slow down supply, which is not a decision anyone at the slaughterhouse can make. So they either cover up violations or get fined. Those are the options, and they act as anyone would in that situation.