Editor’s Note: Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she oversees the GGSC’s fellowship program, is a co-instructor of its Science of Happiness online course, and runs key research initiatives like the Expanding Gratitude project. She earned her PhD in Cognition Brain and Behavior and is a leading expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other “pro-social” skills. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
What would you do if $120,000 suddenly appeared in your bank account?
For Robert and Tiffany Williams, this was more than a thought exercise. You may have heard of this Pennsylvania couple by now: In May their bank accidentally put $120,000 in their account. While nobody knows quite why this happened, we all know what the police said they did next. Instead of notifying their bank, the Williamses allegedly spent their windfall on an SUV, two four-wheelers, and a camper, among other things. They also apparently gave $15,000 to friends who needed money.
They are facing felony theft charges – and massive overdraft fees from the bank.
“All I’m going to say is we took some bad legal advice from some people, and it probably wasn’t the best thing in the end,” Robert Williams told CNN affiliate WNEP outside the court Monday, where the couple made their first appearance in the case.
Research on human social behavior suggests that we should not be too surprised by their behavior – but we also shouldn’t be too quick to draw cynical conclusions about humanity from this story.
According to research in psychology and neuroscience, people are actually born with impulses to cooperate, be helpful, and make choices that are fair and serve the greater good. Very young babies prefer friendly, helpful caricatures over villains, and children routinely help strangers without being prompted or congratulated. When people act generously, do something just, or meet collective goals the reward pathways in their brains light up with pleasure.
Humans, it turns out, are an ultrasocial species and our innate “pro-social” motivations are instrumental to our evolutionary success.
At the same time, however, humans learn from experience and adapt to dynamic features of their physical and social settings. When we are feeling threatened, for example, our biological systems for self-preservation get priority over systems that help us socially connect.
In making decisions, we’re strongly affected by how things are framed and what’s normal amongst the people around us. For example, very small nudges in language can influence behavior: If a laboratory task is called The Community Game, people play more generously and cooperatively than they do if the exact same task is called The Wall Street Game.
So, what happened for the Williamses? We can’t know for sure, but science suggests that several forces may have been in play.
First, the money came from a bank error not connected to a particular person – which took empathy out of the equation. If the Williamses had considered the fact that their gain was another person’s loss, they might have acted differently.
Second, people making unethical choices often underestimate their chances of getting caught in the long term, and fall prey to a more fleeting “cheaters high.” The raw appeal of getting away with it may have fueled the Williamses both immediately gratifying and evidence-obscuring rapid spending spree.
Thirdly, today’s constantly-on media culture incessantly promotes materialism, the idea that personal possessions and status are the primary sources of happiness that people should pursue. Perhaps the Williamses thought their new things would bring more happiness than doing the right thing.
Fourth, we are in an age of social-media propelled FOMO (fear of missing out), or muted resentment about how much more impressive other people’s privileges and opportunities are than our own. What better way to allay this malaise than to stock up on fancy stuff?
Finally, stories about people in positions of power behaving unethically and not having to pay the consequences have been dishearteningly common in recent days. Did the Williamses assume that they too would elude the very-commonly-available evidence of a giant mistaken bank deposit through denial and bombast?
If freely spending $120,000 doesn’t boost happiness, then what does? According to the science to date, real happiness comes from meaningful social connection, contributing to the welfare of others, and a sense of purpose – or feeling like you matter in the world. This kind of happiness improves health and longevity, leads to better relationships – and makes you more successful. Even if the Williamses hadn’t gotten caught, their self-focused and dishonest choices would chip away at their happiness.
While stories like this one can inspire cynicism, they are also great opportunities for reflection and learning. The Williamses may have blown it, but can you say that you would have acted differently? Perhaps this story should compel us to ask deeper questions about what kind of society we have – and what we can do to bring out the best in all of us.