What turns good people bad? The road to depravity and corruption, we tend to assume, is a slippery slope: a few small immoral acts, then things snowball, and before you know it, the floodgates have opened. (To clarify, this slippery slope is near a hydroelectric power plant, hence the floodgates. Also, it’s snowing.)
But according to a recent Dutch study, a more appropriate metaphor might be stepping off a cliff. Participants were invited to roleplay a business negotiation, and got various options for bribing a public official: gradually, with various small inducements; with one big bribe; or not at all. The short version: they were far likelier to become corrupt when presented with a single “golden opportunity” than a series of incremental moral compromises. They didn’t slide into wickedness. They plummeted.
The researchers’ hunch, which makes sense, is that it’s less painful to rationalise immorality once than repeatedly. We’d rather go through the internal process of self-justification a single time, even for a major infraction, than feel obliged to do so morning after morning in the bathroom mirror. But the finding hints at a more unsettling notion that’s dogged psychology since the start. As demonstrated by everything from Shakespearean tragedy to Breaking Bad, we’re fascinated by how someone with one kind of personality turns into someone with another. The implication is that the rest of the time our personalities are fundamentally stable. But what if it makes no sense to talk of our having personalities in this way at all?
This is known as the “person-situation debate”, and it speaks to the worry that, deep down, there might be no reliable set of traits, persisting through time, identifiable as “you”; and that, given the right (or wrong) situation, each of us might become anyone. In minor ways, this rears its head all the time. The coffee shop on your corner closes, or your gym membership expires, and two months later you suddenly realise you haven’t bought coffee or exercised since; your situation changed, and your behaviour just followed along. Then there are more alarming cases from psychology’s back catalogue, such as the Stanford prison experiment, or Stanley Milgram ordering people to administer apparently fatal electric shocks. It’s sometimes argued these demonstrate that, under the surface, we’re all basically evil; but you could equally argue they show that none of us is basically anything.
Follow this to its conclusion and you reach an old, old idea, arising in the philosophy of David Hume and dating back to Buddha: that what you call your self might just be a bundle of processes, not fundamentally distinct from all the other processes that constitute the universe. This doesn’t mean each of us doesn’t have identifiable traits. (A bundle of processes might still be a predictable bundle.) But it’s a reminder of how many debates, on everything from gender politics to how nations turn fascist, still assume that each of us has some fixed essence, only moderately affected by our circumstances. Maybe we don’t. Maybe that slippery slope is built on sand.