Is Success Built on a Straight Line?

With so many examples of ultra-wealthy cheaters in our midst, the message seems to be that a moral code is an unnecessary component for success. Clearly that mindset requires a distorted perspective of success itself, but can we draw a clear correlation between actual achievement of our potential and walking a straight line?

To start, let’s look at behavioral economics. If you leave cash on your desk at work, will someone take it? Economics would suggest that we each would weigh the decision out as a cost-benefit analysis: how much do I stand to earn vs. the likelihood of getting caught and the potential punishment. If you leave out a single $1 bill versus a $20 bill, does the likelihood of theft go up?

It turns out that we don’t make decisions based solely on economics. Duh. In fact, the vast majority of us will make a decision like this based on the impact to our self-perspective. We need to be able to feel like good people at the end of the day. “Borrowing” a dollar is easily justifiable and will have a low impact on our self-dialogue, but outright taking $20 is unacceptable.

In the end, people generally walk a slightly fuzzy line where the boundaries or limits of our actions are primarily based on the need to believe we are honest, caring, and good.

This is an important concept around human behavior, especially if we can make a correlation between the fuzziness of that line we walk and our future success. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted a few studies to test our moral code and shared the results with TED:


This talk begs two questions:

  1. Are there natural consequences to fudging just a bit if we don’t get caught?
  2. How can we steel ourselves against this tendency toward cheating just a little?

Multiple studies have been conducted that measured the correlation between cheating and self-esteem. The results are fairly predictable, those of us with lower self-esteem are more likely to cheat, lie, or otherwise blur the line for our own personal advantage (Blachnio & Weremko, 2011).

Since we tend to make decisions based on the potential impact to our self-perspective, it could be assumed that continuous cheating, lying, or otherwise out-of-bounds behavior would negatively impact our self-worth over time.

Other studies have demonstrated that emotional intelligence is an enormous indicator of whether we will “fudge” our moral code (Oluwatayo, 2011). Emotional intelligence has been repeatedly correlated with increased academic success, stable relationships, and strong leadership.

It does seem that we could agree that blurring the line is at least associated with a lack of personal qualities that are often key to success, if not also negatively impacting our potential each and every time we fudge.

We’ve all fudged at some point, whether we kept a pack of gum we forgot to pay for or telling a white lie to avoid admitting to a mistake. So, how could we better prevent ourselves from blurring the line in seemingly innocent ways?

As Ariely’s talk suggested, the greater awareness we have of our morals and their importance to our success and happiness, the less likely we are to cheat in the moment. In Utah, many individuals of the LDS faith where “CTR” rings, which stands for Choose the Right. Catholics will often wear a cross.

What personally-significant symbol of your dedication to a life of purpose could you create to keep you on your path?

Even more powerful was Ariely’s confederate acting student. Who in your life enables or otherwise accepts slightly wrong behavior and how does that impact your own actions?

Are you surrounded by people who are comfortable cheating just a little or do you have a strong group of individuals who believe their actions are meaningful, even if they don’t get caught?

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