Excerpt from a book:
Your business includes a string of coin-operated newspaper-vending machines. People deposit fifty cents, open the door, and take a paper. The problem is, once the door is open there is nothing to stop a person from taking more than one newspaper, significantly cutting into your profits. You decide to put a sign on the machine to keep people from doing that, and you are offered three suggestions as to what that sign should read:
A. This machine is under surveillance. If you take more than one newspaper, you will be subject to arrest. Stealing is against the law.
B. I depend on the income from this machine to support my family. Please don't steal from me.
C. Please don't take anything you haven't paid for. What kind of person are you?
In those three alternatives, you may recognize psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's three stags of moral development:
- doing right out of fear of punishment
- doing right out of a feeling of communal solidarity with others, and
- doing right because it is right.
For several years, I asked my teenage students two questions: Which of those three signs would be the most effective deterrent for most people? And which of them would be most effective for you personally? The results were consistent.
The students unanimously rejected (A), arguing that the prospect of being arrested for stealing a newspaper was too remote to deter people. They chose (B) when it came to other people, but they chose (C) as most likely to influence their own behavior. They believed they were basically good people (or perhaps they wanted me to believe that they were) and believed that others could be persuaded to do what was right by an appeal to sympathy, putting themselves in the vending machine owner's place.
Like most teenagers, they were idealistic. They wanted to believe in the goodness of the world, that people would do the right thing if we could just find the right words to persuade them. But at the same time, like most adolescents, they spend a lot of time contemplating with much discomfort their own readiness to lie, to exploit, to be cruel to the vulnerable.
I suspect that is why the question "What kind of person are you?" resonated with them, even as it did for Jacob when, in the midst of his struggle, the angel asked him, "What is your name?" Who are you really? It is something those adolescents probably asked themselves twenty times a day?
Kushner, H.S. (2001). What Kind of Person Do You Want to Be? In Living a Life That Matters (pp. 56-58). New York: Anchor Books.