This post was inspired by this thought-provoking post by Francesca Gino for Harvard Business Review.
She writes that researchers from University of Virginia and College of William and Mary discovered that Daylight Savings Time reduced national robbery statistics by 51 percent, rape rates by 56 percent, and murder by 43 percent. The researchers estimated that since 2007 the daylight saving time resulted in over $550 million in avoided social costs of crime per year. More daylight hours make crime more detectable, and give criminals less time to do bad things to good people.
That made Harvard business professors Francesca Gino ,Chen-Bo Zhong, Vanessa K. Bohns wonder if darkness could make regular office workers act less honestly as well. They designed an experiment in which participants did a series of math problems under time pressure. The participants were allowed to score their own work afterwards and allowed to pay themselves a cash bonus for every correct answer. The cash was conveniently left in the room in advance for the test; participants just took their cash bonus according to what they had determined were their earnings.
Some participants took the test in full light; others did the math in a dimly-lit room. The math results for both groups were about the same, but according to Francesca Gino, “almost 61 percent of the participants in the slightly dim room cheated while “only” 24 percent of those in a well-lit room did.”
Taking the idea a step further, the researchers designed an honesty test in which participants were asked to divide up a small amount of money ($6) between themselves and a stranger. Whatever money they did not offer to the stranger (in reality a researcher) was theirs to keep. One group wore clear glasses during the experiment; the other wore sunglasses which gave them the sensation of being in darkness. Gino writes of the outcome, “Participants wearing sunglasses were more selfish: the amount of money they gave was 14 percent less than the amount shared by those wearing clear glasses. In addition, they reported feeling more anonymous during the study.”
What does this mean? For one thing, it explains why nefarious deals take place in dark alleys. We know that bad characters prefer dark rooms and dimly lit bars; what we didn’t know was that you – presumably a good character – would be more likely to go along if you stepped into the alley with them. (Or perhaps the bad characters knew this all along.)
Gino goes on to say that anonymity is akin to darkness, and that may explain the concepts of trolling on the internet, heckling from the back of the room, and anonymous poison pen letters to the boss. When people feel that they can’t be seen, they change their behavior, and they feel free to do and say things they would never do face to face.
As a team member or manager, your best defense against ugly behavior is to drag it into the sunlight. Don’t allow people to drag you around the corner to hear a piece of ugly gossip. Stand your ground in the well-lit hallway and ask them to speak up. If you’re on a business trip with a group you don’t know well, avoid dimly lit cocktail lounges and opt for a bright outdoor café. It can’t hurt, and it might help. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”