The conceit of deceit (The Economist):
YOU are deciding between two magazines to read. The one you choose just happens to feature photos of women in very small swimsuits. But you do not, you claim, pick that particular magazine for the bathing beauties; it happens to have more interesting articles, or better coverage of copper mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. You will say this even in the midst of a lab experiment that has been set up so that the only possible difference between the two magazines is the presence (or absence) of swimsuits.
Such was the finding of Zoë Chance, a doctoral student, and Michael Norton, a marketing professor, both at Harvard Business School. The pair were investigating how people justify “questionable” behaviour (Mr Norton’s word) to themselves after the fact. They asked 23 male students to choose between two sports magazines, one with broader coverage and one with more feature articles. The magazine which also happened to contain a special swimsuit issue was picked three-quarters of the time, regardless of the other content. But asked why they chose that particular magazine, the subjects pointed to either the sports coverage or the greater number of features—whichever happened to accompany the bikinis.
This may not seem surprising: the joke about reading Playboy for the articles is so old Ms Chance and Mr Norton borrowed it for the title of their working paper. But it is the latest in a series of experiments exploring how people behave in ways they think might be frowned upon, and then explain how their motives are actually squeaky clean. Managers, for example, have been found to favour male applicants at hypothetical job interviews by claiming that they were searching for a candidate with either greater education or greater experience, depending on the attribute with which the man could trump the woman. In another experiment, people chose to watch a movie in a room already occupied by a person in a wheelchair when an adjoining room was showing the same film, but decamped when the movie in the next room was different (thus being able to claim that they were not avoiding the disabled person but just choosing a different film to watch). As Ms Chance puts it: “People will do what they want to do, and then find reasons to support it.”
I recommend reading the original study. It’s very accessibly written, and if you read nothing else, skip to page 9 (page 10 of the pdf file) and read the section entitled ‘Are People Aware That They are Justifying?’.
One of the key insights from psychology and one of the most practically applicable findings (particularly in clinical work) is that people’s explanations for why they do something are not necessarily a reliable guide to what influences their behaviour.
This also goes for ourselves and there are probably many areas in our life where we justify our actions, good or bad, with comfortable, plausible, fantasies.
- The conceit of deceit (The Economist)
- I only read it for the articles (MindHacks)
- “I read Playboy for the articles”: Justifying and Rationalizing Questionable Preferences (HBS Working Knowledge)
- “I read Playboy for the articles”: Justifying and Rationalizing Questionable Preferences Full Working Paper Text (PDF)