Hitting the Moral Reset Button

The State of Atonement

Eli Valley

By Dan Ariely

Published September 19, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
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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


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