July 29, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Science of the Ten Commandments

Thinking about the Ten Commandments reduces cheating, even for atheists.

In his weekly TV program on Fox News, John Stossel interviewed Dan Ariely, psychology professor at Duke University.  An iconoclastic reporter, libertarian and evolutionist, Stossel seems happiest when dismantling myths and showing that reality is often opposite what we believe or have heard.  He seemed speechless, though, when Ariely brought up the Ten Commandments.

Stossel was expressing the idea that everybody cheats.  Ariely, a mythbuster himself, and not an obvious fan of the Decalogue, recalled an experiment  he ran in which students reduced their cheating when asked to think about the Ten Commandments – even if they could not list them and didn’t believe the Bible.  On his blog post July 1, he explained, “We once ran a study on cheating where we asked students to try to recall the Ten Commandments before an exam, and found that this moral reminder deterred them from cheating.” (For more detail on the experiment, see his May 26 article on the Wall Street Journal.)

His blog post continued by citing an MBA professor, so upset with rampant cheating, that he asked his students to sign an honor pledge that listed the Ten Commandments and warned them if that if they violated it they would “be sorry for the rest of [their] life and go to Hell.”  Needless to say, complaints and controversy ensued at that school, but Ariely ended with some wit:

Still, though I don’t doubt its effectiveness, the question remains whether we want to invoke such stringent punishments (stringent for those who believe, that is) on an MBA exam. Judging from the reactions in this case, I’m guessing that for most people, the answer is “no.” But it also makes me wonder about the people who didn’t want to sign this pledge….

Stossel and Ariely must also be wondering what is it about the human psyche and the Ten Commandments that produces this kind of reaction in students but not apes.

Well, no wonder.  People have a conscience.

Exercise: Run an experiment in which students are warned before an exam to ponder the Fifteen Evolutionary Gems (hear podcast on ID the Future).


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