If you were burned over 7% of your body and needed to have your dressings changed daily, would you rather have the nurse pull the old ones off quickly, causing intense, but short-lived pain, or would you rather have the nurse ease them off, taking much longer with a lower level of pain? How does that decision relate to the evil doings of Enron or Wall Street financiers? Does it relate to your choice of OS, new computers, or applications? Can classical decision theory help us make the least painful choice? Can it help us decide when people (including ourselves) are likely to cheat?

This type of painful (!) decision making in treating burns was explored eloquently in a TED lecture by Dan Ariely. The title of the talk, Dan Ariely on Our Buggy Moral Code, does not give a good idea of what is to follow. In his introduction, he states that he is interested in irrational behavior. That is closer to the mark. Often, choices of whether to hurt someone a lot for a short time or a little bit for a long time are cast in terms of moral decisions. The person doing the hurting might be well-motivated — like the nurses — but how they behave depends on intuition and prejudices. So the transition from burns to cheating is natural since both have normal payoff components and moral components.

Dan was a burn patient and had his dressings changed in the quick jerk method, causing intense, but short pain. This happened every day for years in spite of his pleas with a nurse to vary the routine. Later, he did research on this question of which alternative is preferable by the simple method of hurting volunteers in different degrees for differing lengths of times. Why not? That is science in action. He had to gather data to decide if the prejudice toward the slow dressing removal was indeed the better choice — better in terms of the patient’s preferences.

His results agreed with his prejudice as a patient: Most people prefer the slower method of easing the dressings off. This is counter to what the nurses commonly believe is the most humane way to do a distasteful task. After all, they do not like causing pain, and to see the suffering limited to a short time seems like the right way to go. The patients disagree.

Painful Decisions: Should I Cheat?But Dan did not stop there. He extended the study to include the seemingly irrational behavior of cheating. This might seem like an unrelated topic until you ask why people cheat. Why do people download copyrighted material without paying, but would never think of stealing a computer? Why would you not hesitate to pocket a pencil from work but never take anything “valuable?”

Dan explores the reality of what people do to so he can construct the underlying real morality that determines our actions as opposed to the ideal morality that we commonly hear such as “Thou shalt not steal.” This morality gets mixed up with the morality of causing pain in others even when such pain is for their own benefit, as in the case of burns.

Some obvious conclusions result from his work. For instance, the likelihood that you will tolerate illegal downloading depends greatly on what your friends are doing. “But Ma, all the other kids get to do it…” applies to adult morals also. If everyone you know pirates music and videos, you will likely pirate also. That is just the way it is.

Where this tendency goes very wrong is when groups of amoral (in the normal sense) people come together and mutually support decisions to do progressively worse things. Then we get Enron. Then we get the Wall Street meltdown with none of the evil-doers paying for their deeds. On a larger scale, we can get whole countries suddenly doing evil things because everyone is doing it. The ethnic cleansing of recent years and the Nazi rule or excesses of the French revolution are other examples. On a smaller scale, we get street gangs. But regardless of the size, the underlying phenomena are the same.

Yet if you ask any nurse who changed burn victim dressings with the quick jerk method, “Why do it that way?” The answer would likely be that it is best for the patient. That is, the nurse is probably trying to do good things. In a similar vein, I have heard eloquent defenses of pirating, some of which are pretty good. After all, if the book publishers or music industry middlemen are charging more than you think is fair, what is the proper response? If they are ripping me off, don’t I have a right — even a duty — to rip them off?

So what I thought was an inappropriate title for a lecture turns out to be appropriate after all. The linkage between treating burn victims, Enron, Wall Street, and piracy might not be immediately obvious, but Dan’s presentation makes a strong case for considering them to all be facets of a “Buggy Moral Code.”

The next time I am faced with deciding how to treat my clients in a questionable case I will remember the nurses who had strong intuitions about the best procedure, but were wrong. The patients were not part of that decision process even though they were the ones most affected. By only talking to other nurses and medical professionals, no one felt the need to consider the patients’ objections. It took a scientifically motivated ex-patient to do the basic research that could have been done years earlier.

Now if only the publishing and music industry would take the same scientific approach to finding a proper way to make honest money without inadvertently abetting a widespread piracy mentality, then we would have something.