Maybe We All Cheat A Little Bit

We all like to think of ourselves as honest but, in fact, we all cheat a little bit. Especially when we think our peer group is cheating too.

At least that’s the conclusion of Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Dan researches the moral side of decision making and how it is impacted by money. He’s written a series of books and inspired a movie and a card game.

In one experiment, Ariely offered participants $1 per correct answer to 20 simple math problems that everyone could solve – but not enough time to solve them all. The first group turned in their answers and, on average, got four questions correct. The second group self-reported the number of answers they got correct and were allowed to shred their working paper to destroy any evidence. On average, they reported they got seven answers correct. The difference between the two groups is clearly due to cheating. However, this wasn’t the result of a few bad apples; virtually everyone cheated by a small amount and almost no one cheated by a lot.

Ariel varied the amount of money awarded for a correct question from $0.10 to $10, assuming people would cheat more as the reward increased. In fact, there was little change; everyone continued to cheat by only a little bit. Ariel also varied the probability of being caught: some people shredded the whole paper; some shredded half of the paper, leaving a little evidence; some shredded the whole paper, left the room, and paid themselves from a bowl with $100 in it. While you might expect people to cheat more as the probability of being caught went down, there was little change to behavior. Regardless of the monetary incentive or the likelihood of being caught, almost everyone cheated a little bit.

What causes this effect? Ariel suggests it’s a personal fudge factor. We want to feel good about ourselves, so we don’t want to cheat. However, we can cheat a little bit and still feel good about ourselves. Perhaps each of us has a level of cheating we can’t go over which allows us to cheat a little without changing our impressions about ourselves.

We know we change our social norms based on others in our tribe and Ariel has shown this applies to our likelihood to cheat as well. In another experiment, he pre-paid the participants the full $20 before they tried to answer the questions and told them to give back the money they didn’t earn. As before, when given the opportunity to cheat, nearly everyone cheated a little bit and no one cheated a lot.

Can you increase the likelihood people cheat by making it seem acceptable? Ariel modified the experiment to make cheating seem ok by planting a fake participant who, in front of everyone else, declared he had gotten every question correct in under a minute. While this was obviously cheating, the planted participant was allowed to leave with the $20 – unchallenged.

If people self-identified with the cheater, cheating increased; otherwise, it decreased. This experiment was run at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. If the planted cheater was wearing a CMU sweatshirt, the other participants viewed him as part of their group and, seemingly legitimizing the behavior, cheating went up. But if he wore a rival University’s sweatshirt, cheating went down; they didn’t want to mimic a rival’s behavior.

Ariel’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone- Especially Ourselves is a fascinating read and can help us understand situations in which we’re more likely to cheat. We think of ourselves as honest but are often incented to push to our personal fudge factor. It’s likely most people have fudged the value of goods they donated to a charity – just a little.

Maybe Ariely is right: we all cheat a little bit.

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