Reasons to Beware of Darkness

Darkness“Beware of darkness….. it can hurt you,” intoned George Harrison in a song. Decades before, Tolkein wrote: “In the morning counsels are best, and night changes many thoughts.”  Recent research reveals that all of those movies, wives-tales and religious warnings about darkness may have some validity but that the dark enemy might well be yourself. It turns out that there are not only compelling reasons  to avoid darkness, but even to avoid sunglasses when you need to make an important decision.  Social scientists are finding that the anonymity that accompanies darkness (or sunglasses) leads to immoral decision making.   Moreover, the anonymity of the Internet 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.

In 2010, psychological scientists Chen-Bo Zhong, Vanessa K. Bohns (both of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management), and Francesca Gino (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) conducted three experiments to test whether darkness can license dishonest and self-interested behaviors. In the first experiment, participants were placed in a dimly or well-lit room and received a brown envelope that contained $10 along with one empty white envelope. They were then asked to complete a worksheet with 20 matrices, each consisting of 12 three-digit numbers. The participants had five minutes to find two numbers in each matrix that added up to 10. The researchers left it up to the participants to score their own work and for each pair of numbers correctly indentified they could keep $0.50 from their supply of money. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to place the remainder of their money into the white envelope on their way out. While there was no difference in actual performance, participants in the slightly dim room cheated more and thus earned more undeserved money than those in a well-lit room.

In the second experiment, some participants wore a pair of sunglasses and others wore clear glasses while interacting with an ostensible stranger in a different room (in actuality participants interacted with the experimenter). Each person had $6 to allocate between him-or herself and the recipient and could keep what he or she didn’t offer. Participants wearing sunglasses behaved more selfishly by giving significantly less than those wearing clear glasses.  In a third experiment, the same scientists replicated the previous experiment and then measured the extent to which participants felt anonymous during the experiment. Once again, those wearing sunglasses gave significantly less money and furthermore, those wearing sunglasses reported feeling more anonymous during the study.  Across all three experiments, darkness had no bearing on actual anonymity, yet it still increased morally questionable behaviors. The researchers suggest that the experience of darkness may induce a sense of anonymity that is disproportionate from actual anonymity in a given situation.

By providing anonymity, darkness may facilitate dishonest behavior. When transgressors believe others will not be able to identify them, they are more likely to behave dishonestly.   Scholarly work conducted in the 1960s and 1970s found that criminal assaults most frequently occur during hours of darkness and that improving street lighting in urban areas is commonly followed by reductions in crime of between 33 percent and 70 percent — impressive gains.   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.

In a subsequent experiment at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,  eighty-three students were invited to participate in an experiment for which they would receive a $5 show-up fee and a potential bonus payment of $6. Half of the participants were asked to wear a pair of sunglasses, and the other half were asked to wear glasses with clear lenses. They were then assigned to work with someone they were told was another participant (but was actually the experimenter) in a different room. They would be working with this person by communicating through computers. Participants knew that they would not interact face to face with their partner, nor would they later learn their partner’s identity. Each person had $6 to divide between him- or herself and the recipient. The recipient had no choice but to accept the offer, and participants were told they could leave with the money they kept for themselves. Although we told participants that they had been randomly assigned to a role (either initiator or recipient), they all played the initiator against the experimenter. After participants made their choice, they answered a few questions measuring the extent to which they felt anonymous during the experiment.  Participants could offer any amount between $0 and $6. On aver­age, they offered $2.35, a bit less than a 50/50 split. Their offers differed based on whether they wore sunglasses: those who wore sunglasses gave less than $2, on average, while those who wore clear glasses offered an average of almost $3. Participants in the sunglasses condition gave significantly less than an equal division; those in the clear-glasses condition gave significantly more. As we predicted, wearing sunglasses also affected participants’ psy­chological state: they felt more anonymous during the study than did those wearing clear glasses. Although darkness had no bear­ing on actual anonymity, it still increased morally questionable behaviors.

The takeaway from these studies is that darkness may not be your friend when it comes to decision-making.   When anonymity is added into the mix, you seem to lose sight of your moral compass.  As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  When clarity of thought beckons, it may be safer to make decisions with eyes unshielded from light.

1 reply
  1. Reston
    Reston says:

    These observations could be extended to the many examples of antisocial behavior by people who feel anonymized (read alienated) from others. For example, consider behavior by some drivers on our streets and freeways. Many motorists seem to drive with disregard for others’ rights and the safety of all, feeling “shielded” in their vehicles, even descending into “road rage” that they might think twice about displaying if they were personally face to face with their victims from the beginning. Sunlight (read accountability) is indeed the best disinfectant.


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