Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 15, 2010 2:28 PM
Our dog is a total alpha. Combine that with his Napoleon complex—he's just a wee Boston Terrier—and you've got the makings of a canine Castro. To counter his quest for complete apartment domination, my husband and I keep him in a crate while we're out.
Most times Marvin can sense our imminent departure, and he skitters underneath the coffee table as fast as he can. He thinks because he's covered, he's hidden. What he doesn't realize is that the coffee table has no sides, and its top is made of glass.
We laugh, basking in our human supremacy, but actually this "false sense of concealment" also extends to people.
As reported in Time magazine, psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Vanessa Bohns of the University of Toronto and Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina recently poked at the correlation between darkness and unethical behavior and came up with some surprising results. The most interesting to me was that people who wore shaded sunglasses subconsciously perceived themselves to be more hidden than those around them.
The researchers arrived at this conclusion by dividing 50 students into two groups and giving one group shaded sunglasses and the other clear ones. All of the students were then given $6 each and asked to online chat with a stranger in another room. They could divide their money with the strangers however they wanted, including keeping all $6 for themselves.
The students wearing the shaded glasses gave on average $1.81, compared with $2.71 for the other group. Even though they must have known the darkness seen through their shades wasn't real, they still had fewer qualms about acting selfishly when to them the world looked dimmer.
As the Time article points out, there are a number of evolutionary explanations for this behavior: "We evolved in a world with a day-night cycle and as a practical matter, darkness does conceal behavior, so it's no surprise that that protected feeling lingers in the unconscious whenever the lights go down."
Last fall, I moved from a quasi cubicle with only two walls—one along my left side and one behind me—to one where I'm almost entirely enclosed in box. In my previous space I also faced a window, where the sunshine poured in and I could watch the seasons change (a phenomenon so beautifully captured by this project on Flickr Flow).
In my current spot, I face a corner. There's less light, and my sense of concealment is quite real, no shaded sunglasses required. After the move, I sensed a drop in productivity, and now I'm even more certain it has affected my behavior. Not to say I think I'm acting unethically—maybe just more prone to distraction—but I am considering playing up the possibility. For months I've been campaigning for lower cube walls, and who knows what mischief I could be causing in here.