From the time of my seminary years I have been an avid reader of the writings of the ancient ascetics who were careful students of life. One of their counsels regarding godly life is the exhortation to guard the conscience by being mindful of the importance of little things. Little things too test our integrity, they said, and show the direction of the heart, whether it inclines toward good or evil, virtue or vice, heaven or hell.
St. Dorotheos of Gaza in his Discourses and Sayings advises to keep watch over our thoughts and emotions in order to reject the unworthy ones and follow the honorable ones. He writes: “When we begin to say, ‘What is it if I say just these few words? What does it matter if I eat this morsel? What difference if I poke my nose in here or there? From such things we begin to despise more serious things, tread down our conscience and risk destroying it bit by bit.”
He counsels: “Brothers and sisters, see to it that we do not neglect little things. See to it that we do not despise them as being of no account. There are no ‘little things’–for when it is a question about feeding bad habits, it is a question of a malignant ulcer. Let us give heed to trivial matters when they are trivial, lest they become grave. Doing what is right and what is wrong both begin from small things and advance to what is great, either good or evil.” The saint goes on to teach that we should be attentive to our conscience and be honest in all things towards God, towards other human beings, as well as toward things, that is, to use material things purposefully and wisely.
I remembered St. Dorotheos and his advice when I read about an instructive psychological study by Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavior Economics at Duke University, in his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially to Ourselves (Harper Collins). Ariely and his psychologist colleagues conducted two experiments, one to see what makes for dishonesty and another to see how dishonesty can be curbed. The experiments shed light on how dishonesty works and what could be done about it, whether involving individuals, the work place, big business, or institutions, ranging from such things as padding one’s working hours, filing exaggerated insurance claims, or exploiting customers through hidden fees.
In the first experiment participating subjects were given twenty grids of numbers, all ending in fractions for difficulty, with the task of identifying two numbers in each grid which added up to 10 (only two numbers added to 10). Five minutes were allotted. The reward was a certain amount of dollars for each correct answer out of twenty. The subjects had to turn in their worksheets together with their answers. But another series of subjects had been asked to put their worksheets through a shredder in the back of the room and report their answers separately. The result? Those who had to return the worksheets scored an average of 4 correct answers. Those who shredded their worksheets “miraculously” reported 6 correct answers on average. Some fibbing was going on.
When the amount of money was increased, this did not lead to more cheating. When the reward was made more “distant” by offering tokens instead of money, however, the subjects cheated twice as much as those lying directly for money. The greatest amount of cheating was when a “fake cheat” was planted among the subjects. The fake cheat got up about a minute into the experiment and announced to have solved all twenty problems, an implausible feat! Not to be left behind, the remaining subjects then claimed to have solved double the number of problems as the control group.
The second experiment was to measure what factors or elements reduce dishonesty. The psychologists took a group of 450 participants, split them into two, and asked half to remember the 10 commandments and half to remember ten books they had read, and then tested them with the same grid number problem. The ones who had been asked to remember the 10 commandments showed no cheating, but the others the usual moderate cheating. In another form, the subjects were asked to recall the honor code of their college instead of the 10 commandments, and again there was no cheating. Finally, they ran the same experiment with a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again. There were other variations and details about the experiments that need not be recounted here.
The author of the study drew a number of conclusions from the research. On the one hand dishonesty is prompted by such things as: 1) a culture that gives examples of dishonesty; b) watching or knowing a specific others who behave dishonestly; 3) thinking that others will benefit from our dishonesty; 4) being tired or confused or frustrated; 5) having committed immoral acts previously; and 5) ability to rationalize. On the other hand, dishonesty can be curbed by: 1) supervision; 2) moral reminders; 3) placing our signature at the beginning of a form and not the end; and 4) use of honor pledges.
Notwithstanding, the most striking and illuminating conclusion of the study was that very few people steal to a maximal degree, and very few people are absolutely honest, while the overwhelming majority steal, cheat, or lie “just a little here and there.” The cross-section involves people from all walks of life—none excluded! The author, an economist, suggests that the greatest economic loss to a nation comes not from the few big cheaters we hear about in the media but the countless ones who fudge here and there a little bit and inclined to fudge more with time. The author highlights the “brute” psychological force of “I’m only fudging a little” or “Everyone does it.” He issues a warning about the contagious nature of cheating and the way that “small transgressors can grease the psychological skids to larger ones.”
What St. Dorotheos of Gaza and other wilderness ascetics had discerned about human nature long ago modern psychology confirms with analytic data. Human sin is universal, ever at the door, and often just below the surface of desirable propriety for the great majority of us who fib only a little and still try to feel good about our sense of personal integrity. We see equally what are the positive motivations for keeping honest with little things as well: reminders of God, the commandments of God, the Bible, honor codes, and the like.
Honesty too is deeply rooted in human beings. Alertness and grace activate it. Let us keep our faith in God alive through daily prayer, regular worship, Holy Communion, the reading of the Scriptures, mutual forgiveness, and words and works of kindness towards all. The saints teach that we can practice daily mneme Theou (remembrance of God) in every way possible—as we wash, dress, eat, walk, converse, work, play, rest, and even sleep, with brief moments of remembering and thanking God for all these activities and the many blessings of God all around us. We then catch a glimpse of what it means to be filled with the grace of God and for each life to become a sacrament and a return gift to God.