Nearly everybody lies and cheats. For most of us, we lie and cheat about the small things, the stuff that we convince ourselves doesn’t really matter. But, because everyone does this, the toll adds up quickly. Whether it’s glancing at a neighbor’s paper on a pop quiz in elementary school, or illegally downloading movies, eating a coworker’s lunch out of the fridge, or surreptitiously raising your customers’ interest rates, millions of daily transgressions have a corrosive effect on society.
So, what makes us cheat more or less? According to Ariely:
One thing that increased cheating in our experiments was making the prospect of a monetary payoff more “distant,” in psychological terms. In one variation of the matrix task, we tempted students to cheat for tokens (which would immediately be traded in for cash). Subjects in this token condition cheated twice as much as those lying directly for money.
Another thing that boosted cheating: Having another student in the room who was clearly cheating. In this version of the matrix task, we had an acting student named David get up about a minute into the experiment (the participants in the study didn’t know he was an actor) and implausibly claim that he had solved all the matrices. Watching this mini-Madoff clearly cheat—and waltz away with a wad of cash—the remaining students claimed they had solved double the number of matrices as the control group. Cheating, it seems, is infectious.
Other factors that increased the dishonesty of our test subjects included knowingly wearing knockoff fashions, being drained from the demands of a mentally difficult task and thinking that “teammates” would benefit from one’s cheating in a group version of the matrix task. These factors have little to do with cost-benefit analysis and everything to do with the balancing act that we are constantly performing in our heads. If I am already wearing fake Gucci sunglasses, then maybe I am more comfortable pushing some other ethical limits (we call this the “What the hell” effect). If I am mentally depleted from sticking to a tough diet, how can you expect me to be scrupulously honest? (It’s a lot of effort!) If it is my teammates who benefit from my fudging the numbers, surely that makes me a virtuous person!
But the best solution, Ariely concludes, is simply reminding people to act honorably:
While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.
You can read the full article over at the Wall Street Journal.