Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Almost Everyone Cheats: Do You?

The vast majority of us are dishonest. So says behavior professor Dan Ariely in this fascinating article. Ariely describes various tests he and his team used to measure honesty and explains his team's conclusions. Some of the more salient points include:

  • Only a few people are nearly always honest and only a few are seriously dishonest.
  • Most people are dishonest right up to the point that they believe their personal integrity is at stake. They are only a little dishonest.
  • The seriously dishonest impose marginal costs on society. Although each may cheat much, their relatively small number makes for small total cost.
  • Those that are a little dishonest impose large costs on society. Although each may cheat only a little, their huge number makes for major impact.
  • Dishonesty by the many is related to opportunity; it is not significantly tied to the amount of gain or even the chance of being caught.
  • Dishonesty is contagious in two ways. 1) People observing others being dishonest (especially with no apparent negative consequences) tend to behave more dishonestly than normal. 2) Those engaging in one kind of dishonest behavior (i.e. wearing fake designer fashions) tend to more readily engage in other dishonest behavior.
  • Increasing the psychological distance between the behavior and the payoff tends to increase dishonesty. More immediate payoff reduces dishonesty.
  • Mental and/or physical stress can increase dishonesty.
  • A desire to please the group can increase dishonesty and can be excused as helpful.
  • Reminding people of moral codes at the point of potential dishonesty severely curtails the behavior. This worked even when atheists swore on a Bible. (Although, the moral codes don't have to be religiously based to be effective.)
Airely uses a lock analogy to make his point. A lock on a house or a car is not going to stop a determined thief. It will, however, stop the average person that might filch something from the house or car if they found the door unlocked. Although it's not that hard to figure out how to break or pick a lock, doing so would violate the average person's sense of personal honor, while opening an unlocked door might not.

This Businessweek article provides an interesting side note to the integrity issue. Ariely and colleague Francesca Gino say that creative people are more dishonest. The article says that "creativity fuels dishonesty and that dishonest behavior triggers creativity." The researchers suggest that creative people are better at rationalizing their unethical behavior.

I could not tell from Ariely's article whether reminding people of moral codes away from the point of behavior is effective. For example, do people that attend church regularly behave more honorably than those that don't? Perhaps more research is needed to find out.

Various studies have been done over the years to try to measure the effect of church attendance on honesty, but results have been inconclusive, partially due to poor study design. For example, reliance on survey responses as opposed to actual observed behavior means that you are relying on people to self report their dishonesty. How accurate can such a measure be? It's like relying on an individual's own math to test whether he is a good mathematician.

It would also be interesting to find out what effect continuously reminding people of moral codes has on ethical behavior. Would effectiveness constantly increase or would there be a saturation point where effectiveness levels off?

For most people, then, the question is not whether they are honest or dishonest, but how dishonest they can be without violating their personal sense of honor. Ariely says that "many good people cheat just a little here and there. We fib to round up our billable hours, claim higher losses on our insurance claims, recommend unnecessary treatments and so on."

Society cannot make us reliably honest. That requires personal choice and determination. I suppose that each of us ought to seriously face the questions of how much dishonesty makes us dishonest, and how much our personal integrity is worth.

1 comment:

rmwarnick said...

In the wake of the 2008 financial sector meltdown, it should not be possible to conclude that seriously dishonest folks have little impact on society due to their small numbers.