Hitting the Moral Reset Button

The State of Atonement

Eli Valley

By Dan Ariely

Published September 19, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?

Atonement, the practice of making amends for one’s sins, is a central component of many religions. Both Catholicism and Protestantism have forms of confession and reconciliation. Even Calvinism, which emphasizes a lack of control over one’s ultimate fate, depends on repentance for followers to signal their “saved” status. Islam uses repentance as a cleansing of sins, and Buddhism encourages self-reflection as a means toward enlightenment. The use of repentance in Judaism is necessary for atonement and is particularly salient each year on Yom Kippur. What all these sects have in common is that they preach the virue of confessing sins and asking for forgiveness, presumably to arrive at better outcomes.

While atonement can be achieved in various ways, depending on the severity of the sin, the concept of repentance raises some questions. The Bible says, “Great is repentance, for it brings healing into the world” (Hosea 14:2); however, guaranteed forgiveness for one’s sins could, theoretically, also be used to justify wrongdoings (as long as you repent before death, your sins will be absolved). Has this aspect of repentance caused its usefulness to dwindle over the years? Is it effective at all in encouraging good behavior? This is an empirical question that we have recently started testing in order to shed some light.

My colleagues and I have run many experiments where we put people in situations that tempt them to cheat and we in turn can measure what situations tempt them to be more or less dishonest. In one of these experiments, we allowed people to overreport the amount of money that they earned for a computer task. We find that people are comfortable cheating on this task to a slight degree, and they continue cheating at a minor level for a bit — until they realize they are being dishonest. Then they throw in the towel of morality, cheating across the board all the time.

But when we give these big cheaters the opportunity to apologize and ask for forgiveness for their cheating, we find that they stop cheating altogether: They turn a new page and start behaving honestly. In our experiments, a secular version of repentance allows the participants to reset their own moral view of themselves and, as a consequence, their own behavior. Now, there is one caveat: They don’t remain honest forever, and eventually slip back into the habit of cheating. But repenting does — at least temporarily — get people to examine their behavior and attain a fresh start.

So it seems that repentance is useful, but there are still many unanswered questions: What is the right amount of repentance? In other words, how frequently should one repent in order to stay on the right track for the greatest amount of time? Would the positive effect of atonement diminish or lose its meaning if it is used too regularly? Is it better to let the sinners decide when to repent (as in Catholicism) or to have an externally imposed day (as in Judaism)? And, of course, how can we apply this concept to our everyday lives?

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.