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TRAP 37: DOING IS BELIEVING

Often what we do is what we become. Frequently, we observe our own behavior (what we do or say). In so doing, we influence our attitudes (negative or positive feelings about our action). Social psychologist David Myers writes, "Hearing myself talk informs me of my attitudes; seeing my actions provides clues to how strong my beliefs are."1

When coauthor Dr. Hoyk was in graduate school, his professor of social psychology, Dr. Dalenberg, told his class that early in her career, she had considered walking up and down the isles of the classroom during exams to catch students cheating. She ultimately decided not to do this. Why? She knew that after awhile, her behavior would shape her attitudes—she would probably become—to some degree—more suspicious of her students.

Eric Storch at Columbia University administered a questionnaire to 244 students. Answering the questionnaire anonymously, the college students were asked how often they had copied other student’s work, plagiarized, and cheated on exams. The questionnaire also asked the students to rate their approval on a scale of 1 to 5 ("strongly disapprove" to "strongly approve") of these three transgressions.

Results indicated that students who reported more academic dishonesty gave significantly higher approval ratings of their dishonesty!2 When we act unethically, we automatically begin to view our transgressions in a less negative way.

In 2001, Enron deceived California customers during the energy crisis. The federal government had ordered power plants to maintain full output capacity. Enron created false electrical shortages by shutting down plants and in so doing ran up prices. The company made billions of dollars from the illegal scam. The main players in the scam were the West Coast energy traders who bought and sold electricity and scheduled its delivery. "The attitude was, ‘play by your own rules,’ says a former trader. We all did it. We talked about it openly . . . We took pride in getting around the rules." [Italics added.] Notice in this example that unethical behavior became so frequent that traders were proud of their actions. It’s possible that one of the reasons why they "took pride in getting around the rules" is that they became trapped in doing is believing.3

Doing is believing doesn’t happen if we’re ordered to do something. It only works when we feel like we have freely chosen to act. If your boss orders you to lie and you obey, your attitudes about your lying won’t change. You’ll say to yourself, "Lying isn’t something I usually do. I did it because my boss pressured me to do it."

If we choose to act unethically, the act itself will shape our beliefs and attitudes about our transgression. It’s possible—to some degree—that we will begin to see the transgression as more acceptable.

 

1. David Myers, Social Psychology, 7th Edition, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2002.

2. Eric Storch and Jason Storch, "Academic Dishonesty and Attitudes Towards Academic Dishonest Acts: Support for Cognitive Dissonance Theory," Psychological Reports 92 (2003): 174176.

3. From The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, copyright © 2003 by Fortune, a division of Time, Inc.
 

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