You’re late for a meeting. You pull into the parking lot, and it’s entirely full except for one illegal spot right near the entrance. If you park there, you’ll make it to your meeting on time. If you have to find another spot, you’ll be late.
This situation happened to Nobel Laureate and economist Gary Becker. He reasoned through the possibilities, conducted a cost-benefit analysis, and made his choice. This incident gave rise to Becker’s Simple Model of Rational Crime, or SMORC for short. According to SMORC, people commit crimes because they benefit. They examine the likelihood of getting caught, contrast it with the potential benefits or consequences, and make their choice.
During this time of year we review our mistakes and failings. Part of teshuva — repentance — is a commitment to avoid these specific mistakes in the future. Our view of decision-making is deeply tied to this process. Though SMORC may sound too robotic to account for the full range of human behavior, we often respond implicitly based on this model. We try to incentivize certain behavior, increase the likelihood of getting caught (increased police patrols) or increased punishments (increased sentence lengths).
Dan Ariely, an Israeli-American professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, questioned the validity of SMORC. He conducted a series of experiments into the phenomenon of cheating and dishonesty. In his basic experiment, Ariely had participants complete a series of difficult matrix math problems. They correctly solved an average of four problems. He paid participants 50¢ for each correct problem. However, when given the opportunity to self-report, participants reported completing an average of six correct problems, allowing them to collect $3 instead of the $2 they were entitled to.
SMORC predicts that as you increase the reward and decrease the likelihood of getting caught, there will be a corresponding increase in cheating. This turned out to be false. When Ariely increased the amount paid, as high as $10 per problem, people actually cheated a little less. All in all, something besides SMORC seemed to be driving human behavior.
Ariely proposes an alternate hypothesis to SMORC. He asserts that people are driven by two competing factors: What a person wants, and how a person wants to see him or herself. Most people see themselves as fairly good. While people recognize they possess some faults, they figure they trend overall on the good side. This helps them make certain allowances for less-than-desirable behavior. Thus, someone might be willing to fudge the number of problems he or she correctly solved at 50¢ apiece, but not at $10.
When we view ourselves overall as good, we are susceptible to what Ariely calls the “fudge factor,” the degree to which we are willing to fudge the numbers while keeping our positive view of ourselves intact. When we view ourselves overall as bad, we are susceptible to another phenomenon, which Ariely calls the “what-the-hell effect.” His research shows that people begin with a little bit of cheating, but at a certain point, the cheating increases steeply. People stop kidding themselves and just cheat as much as they can, because, “what the hell?” it doesn’t matter anymore.
Maimonides understood how powerful a person’s self-concept can be in dictating behavior. He writes, “A person should view oneself throughout the year as if he or she is half innocent and half liable, and so too the whole world, half innocent and half liable. If one performs a single misdeed, one tips the balance for oneself and the entire world to the side of liable, and causes destruction for oneself. If one performs a single mitzvah, one tips the balance for oneself and the entire world to the side of merit, and causes deliverance and salvation for oneself and for others” (Laws of Teshuva, 3:4).
Based on Ariely, we understand the pitfalls of viewing oneself as completely righteous or wicked. This simplistic view distorts our self-concept and our sense of our own behavior.
But what does it mean to view ourselves as “half innocent and half liable,” as if everything hangs in the balance? And why should we view a single misdeed or meritorious act as tipping the balance for oneself and the entire world?
Maimonides instructs us to view ourselves as developing and in flux, neither good nor evil. We should view our fate as undetermined, as if we have not yet been defined. While the future is unknown, we should look at every action as if it could define us, tipping the balance of our character. So, too, the world is neither entirely good nor entirely evil. It is dynamic and evolving. We are to act as if our individual actions define the world, which indeed they do.