Black Flagged

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Last May, Josef Newgarden won his first Indianapolis “500” – arguably the highest achievement in motorsports.

Defending champs generally return to Indy 12 months later and savor a month of public adulation.

Not this year.

Newgarden recently admitted that he cheated earlier this spring during Indycar’s first race of the season in St. Petersburg, Florida. His car – and those of his two stablemates on Team Penske – were fitted with an illegal “push-to-pass” capability that allowed them to achieve greater horsepower on restarts during the race, something that is expressly forbidden. 

Josef won that race, in part because he was able to pull away at key moments from his competition. When the unfair advantage was discovered, Indycar’s governing board stripped him of the victory and severely penalized Team Penske.

Worst of all, for Newgarden, is that his reputation as one of the sport’s “good guys” has been severely tarnished. Winning back the trust of his fellow racers – in a sport that requires an extraordinary amount of trust at 225 mph – is not going to be easy.

In an emotional press conference a few weeks ago, Newgarden admitted he had cheated, but did it unknowingly. “I’m not a liar,” he insisted. Most of his competitors are finding that hard to believe. 

What we know for sure that Americans lie, cheat, and steal. A lot.

That’s been repeatedly confirmed by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his colleagues, as documented in his book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. Ariely wonders if there is any realistic way to close our culture’s integrity gap.

He tells the story of eight-year-old Jeremy, who came home with a distressing note from his teacher: “Jeremey stole a pencil from the boy who sits next to him.”

Jeremy’s father was beside himself.  He promptly grounded his son for two weeks. Then he lectured him up and down about the value of integrity. Finally he sighed and said, “Why didn’t you just ask me? You know very well I can bring home dozens of pencils from work.”

As long as we see other people bending the rules, most of us will feel drawn to do the same.

What can be done? Ariely has conducted a set of social experiments that provide some fascinating insights.

He regularly recruits hundreds of college students to take a simple test whereby they can earn modest amounts of money for performing well. Some of the tests are scored by proctors. Others are scored by the students themselves, who then report their own results.

Do the self-scoring students perform better, and thus earn more money? Sadly, yes. When given the opportunity to cheat a little (because no one is looking), college students routinely do so.

Then Ariely introduced a new factor.

He asked one-half of a group of 450 students to write down the names of ten books they had read in high school. He asked the other half to write down the Ten Commandments.

The first group displayed the typical moderate amount of cheating. But not one person in the second group cheated – even though not a single student was able to remember all ten of the commandments.

“This result was very intriguing,” writes Ariely. “It seemed that merely trying to recall moral standards was enough to improve moral behavior.”

In a follow-up, the economist asked a group of self-proclaimed atheists to swear on a Bible before the test. When given an opportunity to cheat, even though none of them affirmed the actual validity of the Bible, none did so.

Do moral reminders and honor codes really work? To learn more, Ariely tested groups of students at MIT and Yale. Half of those who participated were given no special instructions. They cheated at the normal rate.

The other half were asked to sign this statement before beginning: “I understand that this experiment falls under the guidelines of the MIT / Yale honor code.” Not one of those students cheated.

Here’s the really interesting part: Neither MIT nor Yale has an honor code. 

Ariely’s conclusions? “The good news is that people seem to want to be honest… When we are simply reminded of ethical standards, we behave more honorably.” 

Christians sometimes wonder if the Ten Commandments still matter. After all, we’re spiritually rescued by Jesus’ free gift of grace, not by earnest moral performance.

But Jesus himself makes it clear that God’s primary ethical code has no expiration date:

“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working (Matthew 5:16-17, The Message). 

It’s hard to overlook the power of reminding our children – and our ourselves – that the universe has an enduring moral framework, one that human beings are apparently hard-wired to acknowledge.

After all, none of us should want to end up in a press conference admitting that we ourselves were ultimately the reason we didn’t make it to the finish line of God’s race.

And that’s the honest truth.