Would you rather be invisible or be able to fly? (Or: are you a sneaky superhero?)

If, like
me, you were one of the kids whose preferred superpower was invisibility, you
may soon be in luck. The BBC reports
today
that US scientists have
created a material that could one day be used to make people and objects invisible. The material, which has so far been created
only on a microscopic scale, neither absorbs nor reflects light,
meaning that anyone looking at an object covered in it would see what
lies behind the object rather than the object itself. It’s likely that such technology will be
snapped up first by the military, but perhaps, in years to come, invisibility
cloaks will be available to all.

For some,
the idea of being invisible is distasteful. Being invisible means being able to get away with anything – and
why bother to act morally when you can be sure that you’ll never be caught
out? In this case, would a world full of
people who can turn invisible at the drop of a hat be a world full of thieves,
cheats, and sneaks?

This question
has been debated for millennia. In
Plato’s Republic, Glaucon considers
the tale of Gyges, a lowly shepherd who discovers a ring that makes the wearer
invisible. Armed with this find,
Gyges seduces and murders his way to becoming king of Lydia. And, reasons Glaucon, who can blame him? Confident that his crimes will go undetected, what sensible person could resist such
temptation? There is, after all, no benefit to Gyges to do the right thing, so he may as well dispense with morality completely. Socrates responds that, on
the contrary, it is in one’s interests to behave morally.  It is damaging to one’s character to act
immorally, whereas one is at peace with oneself when choosing to act morally.

Socrates’ view that it is in our interests
to behave morally is certainly very appealing.  However, faced with the real possibility of an invisibility
cloak, perhaps the pertinent issue is not whether it is in our interests to behave morally, but whether we are likely to do so if we thought our wrongdoing would go undetected. After all, what is in our interests and what
we actually end up doing are very often not the same thing. Most of us know, for example, that it is in
our interests to eat healthily and take regular exercise, and yet plenty of us
choose to lounge on the sofa with a bag of Monster Munch in preference to going for a jog followed by dinner of a bowl of lettuce.

We can, of
course, take heart from the observation that plenty of people donate to
charity, give blood, report crimes, hand in lost property, and so on, all of which are actions for the benefit of others. But, psychologists and philosophers have long
debated whether we are really capable of behaving selflessly (for example, see [1]). Do you donate money to charity, for example,
because you want selflessly to help the less fortunate, or merely because you
enjoy the smug sense of satisfaction it gives you? Many prefer to believe that we humans are
indeed capable of altruism, perhaps because the idea that we are all ultimately
selfish is rather depressing. However,
this sells selfishness short. At the
very least, it should matter where we get our selfish kicks: it’s surely much
better to be the sort of person who derives a smug sense of satisfaction from
donating to charity than to be the sort who derives it from tormenting old ladies, for example. And, if we are capable of personally
benefiting from acts that are usually considered to
be of no benefit to us, then this takes some of the bite out of the claim that if we were convinced that our wrongdoing would go undetected, we would have no
reason to act morally.

The bad
news is that, even if many of us would abstain from acting immorally in cases
where we were confident that our mischief would go undetected, the
possibility of invisibility would throw up a whole host of new problems. There is evidence to suggest that acting in a
way that reduces our sense of our identity—such as communicating via the
internet rather than face-to-face—makes us more likely to behave in an
antisocial way
. This has been put forward as an explanation
of why people who are perfectly polite in real life can nevertheless turn into rude
and aggressive ‘trolls’ when communicating online. In many ways, communicating on the internet
is a lot like wearing an invisibility cloak: both allow us to enjoy a much higher level
of anonymity than we can in real life, but there’s always the danger of
discovery, be it a traced IP address or a snagged
invisibility cloak. Online behaviour,
then, could prove a useful case study for predicting invisible behaviour. And this suggests that, exciting as
invisibility might be, if we are not careful we could end up being less like superheroes, and more
like trolls.

 

References

[1] Cialdini, R.B. et al. (1987) ‘Empathy-Based Helping: Is it Selflessly or
Selfishly Motivated?’, Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology
52(4):
749-758.

[2] Plato (c. 375 B.C.) The Republic, 2nd ed.,
translated by D. Lee (London: Penguin, 1955)

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