Ethics: The Money Tree Experiment
Subject: Ethics, Motivation, Leadership
The other day while traveling on the road and stuck in a Bronx, New York hotel (that’s a whole other story) I was flicking through the television channels to see what was on. As I flicked it became apparent that there wasn’t much for brain food on the menu. I did come across one of those reality programs which seemed intriguing. No! Not one of those cheesy “look how X family lives” shows. This one was different…and I apologize for not being able to recall the name.
Apparently this reality show was about studying people’s behavior in public given a unique situation. In this case, the unique situation was a money tree situated on a public street corner.
Here’s how it was set-up:
1) The had a 6 feet tall fake tree in a pot
2) They clipped many $1 dollar bills to the leaves
3) At the bottom of the tree, and on top of the pot they put a sign indicating that it was “ART” (I couldn’t make out the sign)
4) They found a busy corner to place the tree
5) Then they hid inside a van across the street with a camera point at the corner where the tree stood.
6) The objective: Study human behavior
The experiment was now underway. People past buy the tree occasionally glancing at it but not stopping. Some stopped, read the sign and then moved on. It seemed as though people were going to leave the tree alone.
Then, all of a sudden, a young lady stops and becomes very interested in the tree. It went from a casual glance to the investigative mode. You could tell she was in disbelief that someone would put a tree with money and leave it on a corner. She then began to look around as if to say, “Does anyone else see this money tree?” And, as she began to solicit looks from others passing by, others began to stop.
The young lady, feeling a bit braver, then ‘plucked’ a dollar and again, looked around as if to say, “Is this for real? Who would be this stupid to leave this tree unguarded?” As she held the plucked dollar in her hand, people passing by or who were now curious took a more serious interest in the tree.
The young lady plucked another dollar as now they were more people gathered around the tree. Then out of nowhere, another person reached in to pluck a dollar. Within one minutes the tree had been plucked clean and more people were now gathering. Some were even digging into the base of the tree to make sure there weren’t any dollars left.
Finally, a tall man who was passing buy and became curious began telling the people taking the money that it was wrong. But it was too late, the tree stood bare as the art world was shocked (sorry,…I went for the drama).
The people conducting the experiment in the van then jumped out, ran across the street where the tree stood and asked the lady who had first plucked the bill why she did it. Her answer was incoherent but it added up to, “Hey, it was there…why not.”
I was fascinated by this experiment from a few viewpoints.
First, I noticed that human dynamics change when the one person stopped and initiated the action (plucking the dollar).
Second, I also noticed that the first person was afraid to act alone after plucking the first dollar and began to look around for conspirators. In other words, she didn’t want to be the only one taking the money.
Lastly, there seemed to be a ‘critical point’ (both in time and number of people) where the actions of one turned into an all out grab-the-money feeding frenzy.
I began to reflect on how people can be influenced by the actions, maybe not of one person, but by a group of people. Anyone plucking the money had to know objectively that taking it was wrong. Yet, because everyone else was doing it, it seemed O.K. It was as though people began to suspend accountability and ethics so long as everyone else was doing it.
This experiment scared me because I was watching people, who seemed to be normal, degenerate into inexplicable actions within a couple of minutes. Are our ethics so weak, our morality so fragile that it could be bought for a few dollar bills?
My only ray of hope for humanity came when I saw the man towards the end of the feeding frenzy begin to scold the people surrounding the tree saying, “Stop! That’s wrong!” What he said seemed to have some type of sobering affect on the people. I’m sure that later, when they watched themselves on television, they had to be horrified by their behavior. And, they better hope their friends didn’t see the show because there was no ‘blurring out’ of the faces on this reality show.
Whether in our personal lives or in business, going along with what everyone else is doing is wrong…it’s a herd mentality. How many times have we found ourselves in awkward situations because we followed the crowd? Some of us wind up doing things we wouldn’t do otherwise, or later regret. We got caught up or lost in the moment.
The recent corporate scandals that have rocked our confidence in businesses and the stock market was brought about by greed, but more specifically, by people who just went along because they were either told it was alright or didn’t have the courage to say, “No, that’s wrong.”
It only takes one time, one moment to alter the course of our life. Many people are sitting behind bars today or living a quiet life of desperation because of one moment where there was a lapse in judgment.
Malcolm X was once asked by a reporter if there should be more laws drafted to ensure equality. His response went along this line, “There are already enough laws on the books. The problem is you can’t legislate morality.” I love that answer. We are responsible for legislating our own morality and ethics. We know the difference between right and wrong. It takes courage, not more laws, to say, “No, that’s wrong.”
To the tall man in the experiment, I salute you. Ethics is not what you do when everyone is watching, but how you behave when there’s no one watching.
Victor Antonio G.
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Copyright © 2004 by Victor Antonio G. All rights reserved. This article MAY be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, as long as the author’s name, website and email address are included as part of the article’s body. All inquiries, including information on electronic licensing, should be directed to Victor Antonio G., www.VictorAntonio.com
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