A group of scientists were seeking to replicate a study showing that people are less likely to cheat on various tasks if they are reminded of the Ten Commandments first. Instead, they found the hypothesis to be flawed.
The Association for Psychological Science explains what the researchers found.
Data from the original study indicated that participants who had thought about the Ten Commandments, a moral reminder, were less likely to exaggerate when self-reporting how many problems they had solved compared with those who had been prompted to think about books. The findings provided support for self-concept maintenance theory, which holds that people seek personal gain so long as they can maintain a positive self-image while doing so.
The RRR data showed that the moral reminder had no observable effect on cheating behavior for participants who self-reported their problem-solving performance. Among the participants who had the opportunity to cheat, those who were asked to list the Ten Commandments reported solving about 0.11 more problems than their peers who listed books they had read. This stands in contrast with findings from the original study, which showed that participants who had thought about the Ten Commandments reported solving 1.45 fewer problems than their peers.
The original study had been hailed by some Christians as proof that “we need all the moral help we can get.”. In their minds, of course, that moral help was religious in nature. It turns out that’s not necessarily the case.
It’s also encouraging to hear two of the original researchers, Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely, supported this replication effort, providing the newer researchers with materials used in their own experimental design, allowing for a more complete understanding of the theory.
Although the participating research teams were located in various countries (including the US), there was little variation in their findings. This suggests that the features of the individual replication attempts and participants are unlikely to explain the overall RRR finding.
Researcher Bruno Verschuere said replication studies are “always” different from originals, and that you “cannot step in the same river twice.” He further explained that the original study could have produced different results merely because of how and when it was undertaken.
“For instance, the original study was conducted more than a decade ago at an elite university. The perceived rewards, the perceived probability of getting caught and the perceived consequences of getting caught may have been different for participants in our replication study. But we also need to consider the possibility that the effect does not exist, and that the original result was a chance finding.”
In a commentary accompanying the RRR, [On] Amir, Mazar, and Ariely write that they are “grateful for the continued investigation and inquiry into a topic that we believe is not only important but also highly relevant in today’s world.”
This is how science works, people. If you are shown to be wrong, you celebrate the continued investigation into the issue and celebrate the discovery. Regardless of why the underlying study was flawed, there’s now evidence — more thorough evidence — that the Ten Commandments doesn’t impact cheating in problem solving situations like we thought it did. It’s possible a differently designed experiment could lead to a different conclusion, but if you believe we need to follow the evidence wherever it leads, this new research leads us away from the Decalogue.
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