Dishonesty Gets Easier The More You Do It


Cast your mind back over the past week. How many times were you tempted to act dishonestly? Perhaps you were given too much change at the pub and deliberated whether to tell the barman. Maybe you thought of lying about your weekend plans in order to avoid an awkward dinner party. Dishonesty is a common temptation.

We face such moral dilemmas all the time. They aren’t opportunities to act with egregious dishonesty. Rather, these are the prosaic choices that shape much of our daily lives. Since the temptation for dishonesty is always there, we have to continually make decisions about how moral we want our behaviour to be. And part of what guides these decisions is how unpleasant being dishonest makes us feel.

I recently conducted a study at University College London with Tali Sharot, Dan Ariely and Stephanie C Lazzaro about the temptation to be dishonest. We investigated whether having opportunities to act dishonestly on a repeated basis could affect our readiness to choose dishonesty over and above honesty. The idea is that if someone initially decides to act dishonestly, they will feel bad about it, and so can only bring themselves to be dishonest by a small amount. The next time they act dishonestly, even though it still feels bad, it doesn’t feel as bad. As a result, one could be dishonest to a greater extent before reaching a point where they feel bad enough to stop.

Understanding why requires connecting two important ideas. The first relates to the role that emotional arousal plays in moral decision-making. The second concerns a feature of how the brain operates when contexts are repeated, known as neural adaptation.

Some moral dilemmas provoke emotional reactions that restrict our willingness to act disreputably, and are accompanied by bodily responses like increased heart rate and perspiration. When this happens, our willingness to act disreputably is reduced. For example, in a study by the psychologists Stanley Schachter and Bibb Latané in 1964, students were given the opportunity to cheat in an exam but beforehand half of them were given beta blockers, a pill which lowers physiological reactions. The remaining students were given a placebo. The students that had their arousal levels pharmacologically reduced cheated more on the exam compared to those given a placebo. So there is a physiological reaction against taking the less-than-virtuous path. But when this reaction is absent, that path becomes more tempting.

The second idea is neural adaptation. When entering a restaurant, you notice the wonderful smells of the freshly made food. But after a while, you become less sensitive to these aromas and soon stop noticing them. This is an example of neural adaptation: the brain becomes less sensitive to stimuli after repeated exposure, which keeps our attention from being sapped by aspects of the environment that don’t really need it. In the restaurant, after you’ve got used to the aromas, you can focus on more important things: conversation, what to order, and so on.

These two ideas – the role of arousal on our willingness to cheat, and neural adaptation – are connected because the brain does not just adapt to things such as sounds and smells. The brain also adapts to emotions. For example, when presented with aversive pictures (eg, threatening faces) or receiving something unpleasant (eg, an electric shock), the brain will initially generate strong responses in regions associated with emotional processing. But when these experiences are repeated over time, the emotional responses diminish.

In our study, we went one step further. Might the brain also adapt to behaviour of our own making that we find aversive? In other words, if we engage in behaviour we feel bad about over and over again, does our emotional response to this behaviour adapt? If so, then we’ve got a prediction: since we know that emotional responses can constrain our willingness to be dishonest, if these responses decrease through adaptation, dishonesty ought to increase as a result…



Swedish Insanity – Welfare Is Funding 300 Islamic Terrorists


Swedish Welfare State Funding Islamic Terrorism

A new damning report shows that multiple Islamist fighters who have travelled from Sweden to fight in Syria and Iraq have been the beneficiaries of welfare payments from the Swedish government.

The new report created by the by the National Defence University on behalf of the Financial Supervisory Authority (FSA) shows that around 300 Islamists have claimed benefits by using others to give the government the impression that they are still in Sweden despite the fact that they are in Syria or Iraq fighting for jihadist groups, Swedish broadcaster SVT reports

Terrorist researcher and one of the authors of the report Magnus Ranstorp said the problem isn’t just limited to Sweden. Commenting on the results, he said: “it was not surprising, we have seen the same pattern in other countries. Most surprising was that almost all had it in some form. But it is the monitoring that needs to work better. The problem is that there is too little follow-up.”

The 300 individuals covered in the report traveled from Sweden to the Middle East between 2013 and 2016, and are thought to have participated in fighting for groups including the terrorist Islamic State.

Housing allowances, child support, student loans, maintenance and parental benefits are the most common types of benefits earned by the Islamists, often collected by a third party with the money then sent to them overseas. ” It’s not big money, they do not get rich on it, but it can go a long way in a conflict zone,” Ranstorp said.

Police say that student loans, in particular, are an issue because the fighters can game the system by pretending to be going overseas to study and receive large lump sums from the Swedish government. 

Swedish Minister for Upper Secondary School and Adult Education and Training Anna Ekström said the problem was “totally unacceptable. No state funds will be used for something that is in the vicinity of terrorism. We must take hold of this immediately. We are preparing now to go to the parliament and ensure that the government gets the opportunity to ensure that we do not pay out such large sums at once.”

Sweden has seen at least one case in which the government paid a jihadi before. Late last year, Muslim convert Michael Skråmo was revealed to have been paid £4,300 by the government since leaving for the Middle East in 2014. 

The Swedish government has also essentially legalised the flying of the Islamic State flag after a Swedish court refused to prosecute a man who displayed the symbol on his social media account as a promotion of the terrorist group. 

In 2015 it was shown that the Swedish city of Gothenburg sent more Islamists to the Middle East per capita than any other city in Europe.


Happy Birthday, Einstein: The Physicist’s Remarkable Letter to a Grief-Stricken Father Who Had Just Lost His Son

A poignant perspective on “the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”

To outlive one’s children is arguably the most unbearable of human miseries. Even the most empathic among us can never fully imagine the incomprehensible anguish of a parent who has survived the loss of a dear life that had only begun to blossom.

In February of 1950, a devastated and disconsolate New York father who had lost his eleven-year-old son to polio several months earlier turned to none other than Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) for pain-salving perspective. Their touching correspondence is included in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the slim, wonderful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words on gender and science to a young girl who wanted to become a scientist.

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

The grief-stricken father writes:

Dear Dr. Einstein,

Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world.

With heart-rending and utterly disarming despair, the grieving father goes on to wonder whether some evidence of immortality may be found in the principle of energy conservation in science, then adds:

I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child … has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?

May I have a word from you? I need help badly.

Sincerely yours,

Sixteen years after his sublime letter to the bereaved Queen of Belgium, which stands among history’s greatest letters of consolation, the physicist — himself the father of two boys — takes the time to respond to the grieving stranger. With great sensitivity to his pain, Einstein reminds the anguished father that science cannot provide the assurance of immortality he so longs for, at least not in a literal sense — such claims belong to the realm of religion. Unwilling to call on unreason and illusory comfort even from the depth of sympathy, Einstein instead offers a beautiful and benevolent perspective on the oneness of the universe, reminiscent of the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s ideas about the interdependence of existence. (Einstein and Tagore had bridged science and spirituality in their landmark conversation twenty year earlier.)

Fourteen years after answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, Einstein writes on February 12, 1950:

Dear Mr. M.,

A human being is part of the whole world, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes,
sincerely yours,
Albert Einstein

Complement the thoroughly wonderful Dear Professor Einstein with the legendary physicist on widening our circles of compassion, his timeless message to posterity, his answer to a woman who had lost sight of why we’re alive, and his letter of advice to his own son, then revisit Joan Didion on grief, a Zen master’s advice on navigating loss, and these uncommon children’s books that help kids mourn.


Going underground

Resultado de imagem para Detail from the Russian poster for the 1957 Polish film Kanal, directed by Andrzej Wajda and set during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo by Getty

Detail from the Russian poster for the 1957 Polish film Kanal, directed by Andrzej Wajda and set during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Photo by Getty

Subterranean metaphors have been a powerful tool of political resistance. Today, is there anywhere left to hide?

Terence Renaudis a post-doctoral associate and lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University. His forthcoming book is called Restarting Socialism: The Era of Renewal on the European Left, 1930-1970.

In early 1942, a slim book appeared in London under the title Underground Europe Calling. Its author was the Austrian refugee Oscar Pollak. ‘Underground’, the introduction begins,

has become a catchword, handled by the tabloid press, flashed by the films. Imagination colours it with all the thrills of romance. In actual fact, underground work is quite different. It is terribly slow and wary. It is painstaking drudgery on the edge of prison and death. The catacombs are romantic only when you look down into them from the bright day above: inside they are dark, narrow and chilly – and very uncomfortable to live in. Yet their oppressive gloom holds the hope of future light.

Pollak was trying to pinpoint where the antifascist resistance was playing out across Europe during the Second World War. His vision combined physical areas under the earth – basements and bunkers and bolt-holes – with the secret social spaces that resisters occupied above ground. Pollak’s notion of insurgency blended the light of emancipation with the darkness of deceit, yielding a galvanising mythos of the ‘underground’.

In our own time, the idea of resistance has a renewed urgency and appeal. But we won’t be able to fight a fresh wave of authoritarianism without appreciating the symbols that animated the antifascist imagination of the past – in particular, the underground. That symbol has very deep roots in European and US culture, but over the course of the 20th century it was transformed from a threatening zone of subversion into a liberating space of political resistance. This shift of location and moral valence was partly a matter of necessity. Fascist regimes brutally suppressed public displays of defiance such as protest marches, critical publications and civil disobedience, so resistance was forced to retreat into the private sphere. Antifascists adopted aliases, worked cover jobs, communicated in code, and took covert photographs, all the while maintaining the appearance of ordinary lives.

These were more than just conspiratorial techniques. The resistance relied on an imaginative vocabulary that connected dissidents to one another via a network of subterranean passageways, snaking beneath the surface of everyday interactions. Being underground meant an ethics of spying, subversion, and subterfuge; of dissimulation and double-crossing; of cloak-and-dagger and conspiracy. Ironically this duplicity helped people see things for how they truly were. A buried world, hidden from the state, created forms of solidarity and self-understanding that shaped what was politically possible.

Is there anywhere left to hide today? Government surveillance, smartphones and social media have made our private lives increasingly public. The solipsistic cult of consumerism and convenience encourages us to spend away our cares, while alliances across social boundaries seem increasingly elusive. Where we’ve arrived charts just how far the idea of the underground has shifted in the public imagination, from a symbol of freedom to a hollowed-out token of postwar counterculture, buffeted by the tides of postmodernism and embraced, ambivalently, by 21st-century digital activists. The notion of the underground has come full circle, back to its origins as a space of conspiratorial activity that corrodes the public good. Joining an underground army is scarcely imaginable or desirable for most of us. And that’s a major problem for any would-be antifascists.

The concept of a subterranean realm dates as far back as Hades, the underworld of classical mythology. Homer describes how Odysseus journeyed to this land of death, a ‘shadowy hall’ in ‘the dark earth’. Later, Plato’s Republic featured a similar pattern of descent and redemption in the allegory of the cave – after which Dante, in The Inferno, swapped Hades for a Christian Hell, and Plato’s philosopher-king for the poet himself.

Modern visions of the underground diverged from their origins in the ancient and medieval worlds. The shock of industrialisation in the 19th century politicised the metaphor and made it more human, as people flocked to subterranean occupations such as coalmining and subway construction. The US critic Wendy Lesser calls this ‘technological downward progress’: activities where workers’ pride in broaching new telluric frontiers blended with the fear and fascination of ancient myth. ‘Old ideas which had been attached to fantastic tales now gained association with actual places one could touch and see,’ she wrote in The Life Below Ground (1987)…