We The Web Need Therapy
We The Web need a psychologist. We are rife with dysfunction. Psychopathy? Narcissism? I don’t know… but I think we could use some help.
When the blockchain tracking and analytics company Whale Alert looked at reports and websites to understand the criminal activity, they reported that, “Crypto crime pays. A lot.” Likewise, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman claimed in March 2019 that “charlatans and scammers have always favored decentralized new enterprises.” He believes the activity on cryptocurrencies, ICOs, and other decentralized systems is so nefarious as to warrant their total ban.
Fans of cryptocurrencies (myself included) argue that the level of fraud is a function of the newness of the technology. Scammers and criminals were amongst the earliest to embrace the internet too after all! As adoption increases, the overall rate of criminal activities will be more in line with the rest of the financial system. And yet, I fear that those crying a rise of cryptocurrency means a rise of criminality may not be completely wrong...
Are we destined to always scam each other?
Without some serious intervention, I worry, yes.
According to research by behavioral economists Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely, most of us will lie and cheat in small ways for our benefit if we think we can get away with it. Disturbingly, dealing with “nonmonetary currencies” (things that have cash value but are not cash) greatly decreases integrity. When they switched from paying out for their experiments in cash to tokens that could then be exchanged for cash, cheating more than doubled and extreme “all the way” cheating increased an incredible 80 fold.
These studies’ results lead me to worry about cryptocurrencies, which as “nonmonetary currencies” can be expected to increase financial crime. Now, before you uniquely condemn cryptocurrencies, realize that when it comes to encouraging morality, cash—physical coins and bills—is king. Handling fiat currency bank databases and using Venmo, credit cards, direct deposits, etc. instead of cash is also very likely to increase cheating.
However, if you morally prime people by reminding them of morality and character directly prior to action: integrity shoots up dramatically. People cheat less after trying to recall the Ten Commandments - even if atheist. And after signing that they’ll follow the Honor Policy - even when no honor policy exists. Both the Ten Commandments and Honor Policy serve as a “moral prime,” leading most people to morally evaluate themselves and not cheat when they otherwise would have. The effects of moral primes, when done immediately prior to an action, can be quite striking. In the studies, cheating went from being something done by most participants when there was no moral priming to a jaw-dropping zero participants cheating after both the Ten Commandments and Honor Policy moral primes.
Software automated “moral priming” could greatly decrease cryptocurrency-related fraud. Imagine if logging into your account on a cryptocurrency investing platform like Binance or Crypto.com felt like the digital equivalent of walking into a gilded central bank with “E Pluribus Unum” written across the door. Imagine if before submitting a pull request on Github (which is how developers typically submit changes to code to open source software projects) you went through the digital equivalent of reciting an oath. Imagine if just before signing your private keys to execute a smart contract you had to sign an honor pledge. Our world would no doubt drastically change for the better. We would hurt each other less. We would more often be the forces for good we earnestly want to be.
Now, such moral priming may come with some software bulking - something I would certainly not recommend for a fundamental base protocol such as Bitcoin. However, given the humongous effects of simple moral priming interventions in decreasing rampant fraud, I think decentralized projects should consider adding moral priming to auxiliary protocols, applications and websites. Specialized side chains, second layers, or niche altcoins may be candidates.
How might we use moral priming to curtail crime in decentralized digital projects?
For complex questions like those involving human behavior in decentralized networks, it’s important to turn to the people who study humans (perhaps the most idiosyncratic of all things), social scientists.
Will Experts Answer?
The people who build the technologies underpinning and shaping our future have deep knowledge of computer science, cryptography, and sometimes economics, but seldom of people. Right now, there is disconcertingly little attention paid to emergent, more experimental technologies such as open blockchains from the social sciences. Experts in people tend not to consider the implications of nascent technology on individuals and society. Thus, the social sciences’ valuable wisdom does not get incorporated into new technologies that will one day be so impactful to our well-being. Social scientists typically wait until a technology takes hold to consider its effects. By then, the platforms have too much adoption, too much inertia, for their essential insights to have much impact.
Social media (with its host of negative psychological ramifications) is an example of the failure to adequately consider humans in the creation of technology. As shown below, psychology and other fields in the social sciences were slow to study online social networks.
Figure from: Global trends in research related to social media in psychology: mapping and bibliometric analysis
The population of social media users surpassed that of the United States before the social sciences even really began studying it (around 2008 or so). By that time, my millennial peers and I had already transplanted much of our social interactions and personal lives to social media for several of our formative years. Many of the struggles of my and younger generations have now been tied to the use of social media, including the high rates of suicide, loneliness, perfectionism, and anxiety. I wonder: could any of this have been course-corrected? Could anyone have looked at the very early iterations of social media, their structures, functionalities, and early usages, and foreseen some of these psychological problems? Unfortunately, the experts most equipped to foresee the unexpected consequences on human psychology—social scientists—did not ask or answer questions until it was largely too late.
Thus far, there have been very few papers out of social sciences about the new wave of decentralized systems. The examination of Bitcoin and its derivatives has been almost exclusively confined to the psychology of the speculation on it. Given the massive impacts open blockchains may have on how we build consensus, transact, identify each other, and govern ourselves, it is safe to assume that this tech will affect our psyches and relationships with each other. Yet, history is poised to repeat itself, we are about to undergo a technology-driven societal shift with barely any input from the social sciences. Disaster.
So, what are We The Web to do without experts on people to research and consult?
Well, in the true spirit of the crypto community: we do it ourselves.
Decentralize Research: The Experiments Behind This Book
This book is an experiment in collaboration and integrity. We The Web L3C, the social enterprise behind this book, is experimenting in moral priming and its potential use in the digital realm. Before each action taken in this book, participants have morally primed themselves by signing their names to an honor pledge.
We The Web plans to conduct experiments in moral priming similar to those performed by Mazar, On, and Ariely. We The Web will conduct variations of their experiments where elite university students were given exams, paid per correct answer, and tempted to cheat by being led to believe that reporting an inflated score could not be caught. The data will be collected and used ethically in keeping with the principles explored in the book. The experiments will probe questions about the use of moral priming in decentralized systems. These include: Is signing a pseudonym or random string of characters (analogous to a “private key” in blockchains) to an honor statement effective in triggering honest actions?
Are you interested in understanding and examining the potential psychological and societal impacts of the next wave of technological change? Are you a social scientist who believes your field should advise and inform the future? Are you part of developing an open blockchain protocol or decentralized autonomous organization and interested in improving the morality in your digital community? If so, We The Web would like to hear from you, and potentially collaborate! Please contact us.