Honesty: such a lonely word

Honestly, how many of us are honest all the time? We would like to believe we are honest, good, wonderful, moral people but at the same time we also would like to benefit from cheating if it helps us economically. But can both happen together? Can we cheat a little and yet think of ourselves as wonderful honest people. Apparently the answer is Yes.

Says Dan Ariely, “Due to our flexible cognitive ability, and due to the fact that we can rationalize things very quickly, as long as we cheat just a little bit, we can both benefit from cheating, just a little bit, and we can still view our self as honorable people.” And that’s he calls the fudge factor.

Once Dan ran an interesting experiment in which he gave people a sheet of paper with 20 simple math problems to be solved in five minutes and paid them $1 per correct answer. At the end of the 5 min people counted how many ones they got correctly, shredded the sheet of paper, announced how many questions they got correctly and got paid accordingly. What the people in this experiment didn’t know is that the shredder only shred the sides of the page. Dan found that people solve 4 problems, but they report to be solving 6. And most of the people cheated. He tried the experiment with 25 cents, 50 cents, $2, $5, $10 but the results were similar – lots of people cheated a little.

In another experiment Dan went to UCLA, and asked about 500 students to try and recall the Ten Commandments. None of them could recall all Ten Commandments. But after getting them to try and recall the Ten Commandments he gave them the same math task. And the result was – zero cheating. Regardless of whether one was religious or an atheist, nobody cheated.

Just thinking about morality seems to shrink our fudge factor, gets us to be a bit more careful about our own behavior and therefore allows us to be more honest.

Dan also tried a secular version of the experiment. He edited one sentence to the beginning of the test. “I understand that this short survey falls under the MIT or Yale honor code – Signature.” What happened? People signed, they did the test, they shredded, no cheating whatsoever. And no cheating whatsoever despite the fact that neither MIT nor Yale actually had an honor code.

Source: Dishonesty of Honest People – A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance – Nina Mazar, On Amir and Dan Ariely – Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 633-644 – 2008

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