Why You Do the Right Thing, Even When Nobody Is Watching

By January 10, 2017Knowledge, Self-Improvement, Teams

A long-forgotten masterpiece may help you boost your achievements in the year ahead. Give us a minute, and we’ll explain.

The Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, author of the 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations, also wrote a book on human nature. It’s called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and most people ignored it. But two years ago Russ Roberts tried to fix that by writing his own book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

He reminds us that Smith believed our behavior was impacted by the periodic presence of an impartial spectator, someone “who sees the morality of our actions clearly”.

Smith wasn’t suggesting that each of us literally envisions a tall man in a grey jacket every day at 5 p.m. Instead, he put forward the opinion that even when nobody is watching your actions, you still feel as though someone is watching. That impartial spectator knows the right thing to do, and lacks some of your indecisiveness at key moments.

That is, when the cashier accidentally gives you an extra $20 bill and your first thought is that Wal-Mart won’t miss the money but it sure will come in handy, the spectator reminds you that the 18-year-old cashier may have to make up the difference out of her own $12 an hour wages. So you return the extra $20.

Here’s when Roberts takes the impartial spectator concept one step further. He writes, “The concept gives us a powerful tool for self-improvement. Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. This is a brave exercise that most of us go through life avoiding or doing poorly.”

Try this… when you go to a meeting, give the spectator license to observe your actions and report back. If you make a sales call, ask the spectator to decide whether your were truly trying to serve your client’s interests or you were simply to push products you’d like to sell.

You can do the same at home. How generous, kind, interested, or attentive does the spectator think you are acting towards members of your family, or your friends?

Feedback is nearly always useful… if you use it. The insight that Adam Smith came up with a few hundred years ago is that feedback doesn’t always have to come from someone else. You can separate your consciousness into different roles, and in the process learn to raise your behavior to even higher levels.

Roberts says we all want to do the right thing, but we also have to battle the Iron Law of You, which he calls your inevitable self-centeredness. He writes it “not only wants to put you first, it also wants to pretend you’re a good person even when you’re not. Thinking of the impartial spectator – a coolheaded observer unaffected by the heat of the moment – can make you not only a better person, but also a more effective teammate at work, a better friend, and a more thoughtful spouse.”

“Imagining an impartial spectator encourages us to step outside ourselves and view ourselves as others see us. ”

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Greg Jacques says:

    Good article to challenge people in the right way.These are the actions we all wish everyone would live doing, it is driven by who you are and how we want the world to be. Life is not fair and doing the right thing always isn’t easy, so live your life for a change then you will change and strive to do the right thing with or without someone there.

    • Greg:

      So many opportunities present themselves to us daily ( someone innocently handing us back more change than due, throwing trash out of the window etc.). If we all practiced an impartial spectator sitting on our shoulders, holding us accountable to doing the right thing, what a difference we could make to ourselves and to each other. Appreciate the comment and the desire to be the difference. Be the change you wish to see. Much success to you and those who you influence. You make a difference. Cheers. Monica

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