Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who teaches at Duke University, is known as one of the most original designers of experiments in social science. Not surprisingly, the best-selling author’s creativity is evident throughout his latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. A lively tour through the impulses that cause many of us to cheat, the book offers especially keen insights into the ways in which we cut corners while still thinking of ourselves as moral people. Here, in Ariely’s own words, are seven lessons you didn’t learn in school about dishonesty. (Interview edited and condensed by Gary Belsky.)
1. Most of us are 98-percenters.
“A student told me a story about a locksmith he met when he locked himself out of the house. This student was amazed at how easily the locksmith picked his lock, but the locksmith explained that locks were really there to keep honest people from stealing. His view was that 1% of people would never steal, another 1% would always try to steal, and the rest of us are honest as long as we’re not easily tempted. Locks remove temptation for most people. And that’s good, because in our research over many years, we’ve found that everybody has the capacity to be dishonest and almost everybody is at some point or another.”
2. We’ll happily cheat … until it hurts.
“The Simple Model of Rational Crime suggests that the greater the reward, the greater the likelihood that people will cheat. But we’ve found that for most of us, the biggest driver of dishonesty is the ability to rationalize our actions so that we don’t lose the sense of ourselves as good people. In one of our matrix experiments [a puzzle-solving exercise Ariely uses in his work to measure dishonesty], the level of cheating didn’t change as the reward for cheating rose. In fact, the highest payout resulted in a little less cheating, probably because the amount of money got to be big enough that people couldn’t rationalize their cheating as harmless. Most people are able to cheat a little because they can maintain the sense of themselves as basically honest people. They won’t commit major fraud on their tax returns or insurance claims or expense reports, but they’ll cut corners or exaggerate here or there because they don’t feel that bad about it.”
3. It’s no wonder people steal from work.
“In one matrix experiment, we added a condition where some participants were paid in tokens, which they knew they could quickly exchange for real money. But just having that one step of separation resulted in a significant increase in cheating. Another time, we surveyed golfers and asked which act of moving a ball illegally would make other golfers most uncomfortable: using a club, their foot or their hand. More than twice as many said it would be less of a problem — for other golfers, of course — to use their club than to pick the ball up. Our willingness to cheat increases as we gain psychological distance from the action. So as we gain distance from money, it becomes easier to see ourselves as doing something other than stealing. That’s why many of us have no problem taking pencils or a stapler home from work when we’d never take the equivalent amount of money from petty cash. And that’s why I’m a little concerned about the direction we’re taking toward becoming a cashless society. Virtual payments are a great convenience, but our research suggests we should worry that the farther people get from using actual money, the easier it becomes to steal.”
4. Beware the altruistic crook.
“People are able to cheat more when they cheat for other people. In some experiments, people cheated the most when they didn’t benefit at all. This makes sense if our ability to be dishonest is increased by the ability to rationalize our behavior. If you’re cheating for the benefit of another entity, your ability to rationalize is enhanced. So yes, it’s easier for an accountant to see fudging on clients’ tax returns as something other than dishonesty. And it’s a concern within companies, since people’s altruistic tendencies allow them to cheat more when it benefits team members.”
5. One (dishonest) thing leads to another.
“Small dishonesties matter because they can lead to larger ones. Once you behave badly, at some point, you stop thinking of yourself as a good person at that level and you say, What the hell. This is something many people are familiar with in dieting. We’re disciplined until we lapse, and if we can’t think of ourselves as good people, then we figure we might as well enjoy it. And it happens with honesty as well. Cheaters too can start with one step. We conducted an experiment where participants were given designer sunglasses to wear and evaluate. Some were told their pair was authentic, others were told they were wearing fakes and others were given no information. Then, after they had been wearing their glasses for a while, we gave them matrices to solve. In all three groups, a significant portion of the participants reported solving a few more matrices than they actually had. Moderate cheating, as usual. But while 30% of the group wearing real designer sunglasses cheated, and slightly more, around 40%, of the people in the no-information group cheated, more than 70% of the group wearing the fakes exaggerated the number of matrices they solved. One moral violation leads to further immorality.”
6. Better to encourage honesty than discourage cheating.
“Most attempts to limit cheating come from a cost-benefit understanding of the problem. We think if we make the punishments harsh enough, people will cheat less. But there is no evidence that this approach works. Think of the death penalty. There is no evidence that it decreases crime. A better approach would be to ask, How can we help people stay honest? When we had an insurance company move the signature on a mileage reporting form from the bottom of the document to the top — so people were attesting that the information they were reporting was true before they filled out the form, rather than after — the amount of cheating went down by about 15%.”
7. Honesty is a state of mind.
“In one of our experiments, we split participants into two groups. We asked one group to try to recall the 10 Commandments, the other 10 books they read in high school. Then we had everyone do some matrices. What we found was that the people in the group who recalled books engaged in the same level of cheating as most people. But the participants in the group that tried to remember the 10 Commandments didn’t cheat at all. Small reminders of ethical standards can be very powerful.”