Recently, a friend suggested I make up my own version of a WWJD sticker — one that said “What Would Jesse Think?” See, both of my academic advisors have been named Jesse, and, being an insecure person, I am constantly worried about what my advisor will think of my work. Fortunately, for me, these thoughts are productive: They drive me to do work that I hope would please my advisor, even when I know that I am alone and my advisor has no idea what I am doing!
Anxiety about being watched by invisible agents (an agent is anything that has intentions, desires, or goals) appears to be a powerful motivator for other people, too, and the agents who we think are watching us don’t need to be human or even real for the effect to work. This effect has been proposed as one of the bases of belief in the supernatural: If people think they’re being watched by God, a spirit, or a ghost, they will be less likely to behave badly. Jesse Bering, Katrina McLeod, and Todd Shackelford (2005) tested this idea in the laboratory through a clever experiment.
Participants in this study had to complete a very difficult spatial intelligence test. The problems involved mentally rotating or manipulating a complex image. You can try out a similar kind of test here (just say “no thanks” when asked to register).
Due to a bug in the test software, answers to some of the problems would appear on the screen before the problem itself. Participants had to press a key to dismiss the answer before the question would be shown. Since the images were complex, seeing the answers only briefly wouldn’t help very much with getting the question right.
Before they began the test, one third of the participants read a memorial page dedicated to the memory of a graduate student who had recently passed away. Another third of the participants read this message and were told that the student’s ghost had recently been seen in the testing room. The last group of participants, the control group, neither read the memorial page nor heard about the ghost.
The software “glitch,” of course was intentional. By measuring how long much time participants spent studying the answers, the researchers were able to get a measure of how much they intended to cheat on the test.
Participants in the control group and in the memorial-only group didn’t differ in how much they cheated. Participants in the ghost condition, however, cheated less than participants in the control group. (They also cheated less than participants in the memorial condition but not significantly so.)
This suggests that it isn’t just thinking about death or dead people that reduced cheating (since the memorial and control conditions were not significantly different). Instead, it’s our capacity to think about how a supernatural agent (in this case, a ghost, but it could be God or any other supernatural agent) would judge our actions that made the participants in the ghost condition behave well. (This capacity, by the way, is called “theory of mind” and hence the name of this blog.)
Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t need a ghost story to remind me to think about how someone will judge what I am doing. All I need is a WWJT sticker in my office.
Bering, J. M., McLeod, K., & Shackelford, T. K. (2005). Reasoning about dead agents reveals possible adaptive trends. Human Nature, 16, 360-381. DOI: 10.1007/s12110-005-1015-2