There are two bounds on cheating in societal dilemmas: what you think you can get away with, and what you can trick yourself into believing it’s acceptable to get away with.
Shame is the emotional drive that prevents people from making lies of commission, i.e. false representations of reality. Individuals (e.g. psychopaths) and racial populations (e.g. Semitics, Africans) that have no feelings of restraint about lying for personal gain are therefore described as “shameless”.
Guilt is the emotional drive that prevents people from making lies of omission, i.e. keeping silence on matters of importance. The Asian shame cultures are illustrative of the difference, and their byzantine culture is the result of many strange acrobatics to avoid getting directly at the truth. Individuals and racial populations that have no pangs of conscience about enshrouding the truth are therofore described as “guiltless”.
The common element is plausible deniability, the distinction is endogenous rationalization versus exogenous. To expand this terminology to existing social science, I’ll borrow a large quote from Jonathon Haidt:
Many psychologists have studied the effects of having “plausible deniability.” In one such study, subjects performed a task and were then given a slip of paper and a verbal confirmation of how much they were to be paid. But when they took the slip to another room to get their money, the cashier misread one digit and handed them too much money. Only 20 percent spoke up and corrected the mistake.
But the story changed when the cashier asked them if the payment was correct. In that case, 60 percent said no and returned the extra money. Being asked directly removes plausible deniability; it would take a direct lie to keep the money. As a result, people are three times more likely to be honest.
You can’t predict who will return the money based on how people rate their own honesty, or how well they are able to give the high-minded answer on a moral dilemma of the sort used by Kohlberg. If the rider [Ed: the conscious, rationalizing mind] were in charge of ethical behavior, then there would be a big correlation between people’s moral reasoning and moral behavior. But he’s not, so there isn’t.
In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes a brilliant series of studies in which participants had the opportunity to earn more money by claiming to have solved more math problems than they really did. Ariely summarizes his findings from many variations of the paradigm like this:
“When given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat. In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little bit.”
People didn’t try to get away with as much as they could. Rather, when Ariely gave them anything like the invisibility of the ring of Gyges, they cheated only up to the point where they themselves could no longer finda justification that would preserve their belief in their own honesty.
The bottom line is that in lab experiments that give people invisibility combined with plausible deniability, most people cheat. The press secretary (also known as the inner lawyer) is so good at finding justifications that most of these cheaters leave the experiment as convinced of their own virtue as they were when they walked in.
The Righteous Mind, pg. 96-97
I have to credit Owl with this insight, my contribution was merely to give it the correct names. All we need to do now is apply this to legalism, civilization, and the Pyrrhic cycle. WE’RE CRACKING THE SOCIAL CODE BABY!