Transparency has been a buzz word ever since President Barack Obama was criticized for running one of the most secretive administrations ever.
When campaigning, candidate Donald Trump made vague promises about improving transparency. But so far, Trump’s administration has been more secretive than his predecessor’s.
In fact, the administration reversed an Obama policy in order to keep White House visitor logs secret. Then it moved to block efforts by the Office of Government Ethics to investigate waivers granted by the administration to lobbyists hired to work in federal agencies or in the White House itself.
Political pressure caused the administration to reverse this second policy, but anyone who cares about an open democracy should keep the pressure on because science suggests that secrecy fosters wrongdoing.
Sunlight, it is said, is the greatest disinfectant. Scientific studies in the field of behavioral ethics confirm this saying’s wisdom by demonstrating that people who perceive that they are not observable are more likely to act illegally and unethically. It is human nature.
Studies show that unruly behavior in stadiums drops by as much as 65 percent with the addition of cameras. Likewise, students who take an exam in a poorly lighted room — and therefore feel more shielded from observation — are twice as likely to cheat as are similar students who take an exam in a well-lighted room. Similarly, people buying coffee in a shop set up on the honor system are more likely to pay for their coffee if the room is more brightly lighted.
Additionally, people are more likely to pay for their coffee if their subconscious feeling of being observable derives from a poster with a drawing of a pair of eyes hanging on the wall.
This may sound strange, but numerous experiments show that when people subconsciously feel that they are being “watched” by a pair of eyes drawn on a poster or a computer screen, they are more likely to donate to charity, bus their tables in a cafeteria, recycle, refrain from stealing bicycles, or be generous in playing online economic games.
Mirrors also cause people to feel that they are being watched, even if only by themselves. If children are left alone in a room with a dish of candy, they are five times as likely to take more candy than they have been told is permitted if the room features a mirror.
In one experiment 71 percent of subjects who were given a strict but self-policed five-minute limit for an exam cheated by taking extra time when there was no one else in the room. But if the subjects took the test seated next to a two-way mirror, only 7 percent cheated. Why the difference? Psychologists say that when we imagine that we are being watched, we more vividly notice how we are acting and consider how it would look to others. We are therefore more likely to police our own activities.
Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is clear that integrity can be in short supply when normal people feel they are unobservable. Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted that he should have known that he was going off the ethical rails when he began hiding his activities from his closest confidant, his rabbi.
Sometimes there are very good reasons, such as national security considerations, to keep information secret. But over the course of four or eight years, it is inevitable that breaches of integrity will begin to pile up if those in the Trump administration feel that their actions are not subject to public scrutiny.
Many of Trump’s detractors who think he is a narcissist likely believe that he spends too much of his time looking in the mirror. But it is possible that he actually should spend more time doing exactly that.
Robert Prentice teaches law and ethics and is Faculty Director of Ethics Unwrapped at the Center for Leadership and Ethics in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
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