A recent Scientific American article details a fascinating psychological study. Researchers found that participants who had recently won a skill-based competition, or even recalled a recent situation where they had won, would be more likely to cheat in a subsequent task. Interestingly, participants who were asked to think about a time they had achieved a goal were not more likely to cheat. The researchers posit that when people are involved in activities that involve social comparison, they feel they can justify unethical behavior such as lying or rule-breaking.
Those of us familiar with the Christian doctrine of total depravity will likely see more novelty in the particularities of this finding than the generalities. Christian theology notes that humans can be selfish and petty as part of our sinful nature. Stories in the Bible also lend support to this idea that social comparison might lead to unethical behavior. Even King David, one of the more admirable characters in the Bible, felt entitled to another man's wife, perhaps because his position as king and role as spiritual leader of the Israelites put him in this "social comparison" frame of mind. Lately, I've been coming back to the story of Herod and John the Baptist, because it's so striking to me the way Herod's position of power and his need to defend that power were actually his downfall — they caused him to feel he needed to do something he didn't want to do and murder John the Baptist.
The research cited in Scientific American made me also see why it was so important for Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, to compare his human achievements with his relationship with Christ. Paul here is chastising those more interested in rule-following than relationships, but I think he’s also keyed into the bit of human nature that this study draws out. When we have achieved something through effort or skill, it seems that we tend to take that achievement as evidence of our own worthiness — not just in that one area, but in general.
Paul’s race seems to be one in which the goal is to finish, not beat others.
Now, few of us would argue that being better than someone at one thing (trivia, cycling, business) makes you actually, universally better than them. But in our actions, we do frequently reveal such an attitude.
Paul told us that the way out of this trap is to keep your focus on the true prize: increasing knowledge of Jesus. Compared to this, he says, any other human achievement is garbage. It’s funny that Paul uses a race metaphor to talk about this, considering the Scientific American article uses a cycling race as an illustration. Paul’s race, however, seems to be one in which the goal is to finish, not beat others. It’s a race where we can all be winners because God has already provided a priceless prize.
With that perspective, petty cheating for an edge over our fellow humans feels awfully counterproductive. The real trick, of course, is maintaining that perspective, even in the heat of competition.