Here are some Reese’s peanut butter cups. If you saw a bowl of them sitting out on a stool, positioned invitingly near a sidewalk, beckoning to passers by and clearly unattended, would you take one? What if you left for an hour, came back, and they were still there? Would you rationalize it? (“I’m in the center of a college campus, and it’s almost Halloween. Maybe some student activities group put them here for people to take?”) Or would you moralize? (“Stealing is stealing, no matter the circumstances.”) Your answer may depend on whether you think you’re part of a stupid social experiment.
I’m not a fan of social experiments. I’m enough of an asshole without being manipulated into unethical behavior.
Are humans inherently greedy?
“Yep!” I say, stuffing eight peanut butter cups into my mouth.
Will humans compromise their morals if they think they can get away with it?
“Definitely,” I say, cramming the remaining peanut butter cups into my pockets.
What are the limits of the human capacity for self-justification?
“Boundless,” I say, swiping the bowl and sticking it down my pants to enhance my already full posterior.
To be honest, I’m actually more likely to behave poorly if I think I’m part of a social experiment, because screw you, sociologists! You don’t own me. Your results don’t count if I corroborate your thesis intentionally. What now?
When I saw the bowl of candy sitting out in Harvard Yard, I went from hungry to pissed almost instantaneously. I began scanning the area for any suspicious characters–sociology students crouching in the shadows with a camera and/or notepad, congratulating themselves on finally exposing the rotten core of humanity. I walked away for a while. I came back. I watched from afar as other people examined the bowl, probably asking themselves the same question I’d asked: Is this a social experiment?
“How dare they?” I told my friend, Caitlin. “How dare this social scientist try to control us? I didn’t consent to be a part of this experiment!”
“I don’t really feel like candy right now,” said Caitlin.
“That’s not the point!” I replied. “It’s the principle of the thing!”
So I finally took a peanut butter cup. And I ate it. And it tasted like freedom.
If whatever underhanded undergraduate set up this experiment is reading this now, know that you have have lost. I behaved in an unethical fashion on purpose. I ate your candy. I ATE IT UP. You can report that to your professor, if you want, but the truth will burn out your insides: I knew exactly what I was doing, which invalidates your results.
You’ve been dunked on, sucker!