In an attempt to explain bad social behavior, such as stealing and cheating, behavioral economist Dan Ariely proposes a Fudge Factor theory. The theory basically suggests most people lie, cheat and do other anti-social things only as much as these actions are not extreme enough to undermine their self-image as a “good person.” The distance between crossing the line and feeling bad about it is what is called a Fudge Factor.
Obviously, with invading and annexing parts of Ukraine’s territory, Putin has crossed the line. Is it possible Putin’s Fudge Factor tells him he shouldn’t feel too bad about it? Let us explore the possibility.
The obvious point to start with is identifying the Fudge Factor base level for a person like Putin. Enlightened by Machiavelli, one can argue politicians’ sensitivity to their own immoral behaviour is likely to be low. No matter if they lie, steal or kill, they might assume it is not that bad as long as it is done in “the name of the people.” Additionally, not only is Putin a politician, he is also a KGB-trained man, and history of this organisation gives us grounds to believe it could have boosted the Russian leader’s Fudge Factor significantly.
Still, even with the politician’s and the KGB “premium” on the Fudge Factor, Putin’s behaviour stands out: no other leader in the post-Cold War world attempted to so blatantly annex a territory of another state, not to mention it was done on a pretext copied almost word-for-word from Hitler’s justification for annexing Sudetenland.
Dr. Ariely suggests the Fudge Factor can be influenced by the situation one finds oneself in. Specifically, the immediate actions and reactions of social actors around us make us more or less likely to behave badly. If we think people around us cheat, and they don’t get condemned for it, we are more likely to cheat as well. If our own act of cheating has been disclosed, but people around us do not care, we are tempted to cheat again. In Putin’s case, it is likely that his peers - influential world political leaders, especially those of the West, could have impacted his “Fudge Factor.” This influence probably hasn’t been ennobling.