How honest are we? Not much, if given the chance

Most people are honest. But almost all honest people cheat when given the chance. At least they cheat by just a little bit. 

That’s the conclusion from some interesting research by Professor Dan Ariely from Duke University.

His team ran a series of experiments to find out how honest people really are.

The first experiment was to give a group of Harvard MBA students a general knowledge test with 50 multiple-choice questions. The questions included, what is the longest river in the world? Who wrote Moby-Dick? What word describes the average of a series? Who, in Greek mythology, was the goddess of love?

The groups were given 15 minutes to complete the test. When finished they were asked to transfer their answers to an answer sheet and hand in both the test sheet and the answer sheet. They received 10 cents for every correct answer. 

The first group had no way of cheating and they scored on average 32.6 correct answers out of 50. This was the control group.

The second group were asked to complete the test and then transfer their answers to the answer sheet. But this time the correct answer was highlighted in grey on the answer sheet. 

So the students were able to see if they answered correctly or not. They were asked to hand in both the test sheet and the answer sheet.

Would this group change some of their answers? Would they cheat? They averaged 36.2 correct answers. That’s 3.6 more correct answers than the control group. So they cheated but just a little bit.

A third group conducted the test. Their answer sheet also highlighted the correct answers. But this time they were told to shred their test sheet and only hand in the answer sheet. 

Their cheating could go undiscovered. Would they cheat even more? 

This group averaged 35.9 correct answers which are about the same as the second group.

A fourth group also conducted the test and there answer sheet also included the correct answers. But this group were instructed to shred both the test sheet and the answer sheet and simply take the money they had earned from a jar at the front of the class. 

If anyone was going to cheat, it was this group. There was no way they would be discovered. Would they take advantage of it? 

The fourth groups average correct answers was 36.1 which is almost the same as the other groups, except for the control group.

Interestingly, all groups that were given the opportunity to cheat did so, but only by a little bit. Even the groups that could have cheated hugely without being found out, still only cheated a little bit.

These results were replicated across UCLA, Berkley, MIT and Yale. Interestingly, the average results were not the result of one or two students cheating massively. All the students across the board cheated but just a little bit.

Ariely ran a similar experiment using math equations, but this time he required the groups to do a task before they took the tests.

One group were asked to list 10 books they had read at school and a second group were asked to list as many of the 10 commandments as they could.

The control group who were unable to cheat and scored 3.1 correct answers. 

The group that listed the 10 books they read at school, were able to shred their answer papers so their cheating could not be detected. They scored 4.1 correct answers. Which was 33% higher than the control. As predicted they cheated a little bit.

The group that was required to list as many of the 10 commandments as they could, were also able to cheat undetected. Quite surprisingly they scored 3.1 correct answers. Exactly the same as the control group. They didn’t cheat at all!

Ariely concludes that reminding people of their moral duty immediately before the test, kicked their moral monitor into gear. 

Similar results were achieved when students were required to read a secular moral code such as “I understand that this study falls under the MIT honour system”.

Our honesty monitor is generally only activated with big things and it tends to ignore smaller indiscretions.

Most of us won’t take a $5 note sitting on a table at work. But we will take a $5 beer or $5 worth of stationery from work.

In the USA in 2004, US$16 billion was lost from blatant crimes like robbery, burglary and car theft etc. 

Yet it’s estimated in the same year in the US, $600b was lost due to employee fraud and theft. The insurance industry estimates $24b dollars of claims are bogus and the IRS thinks $350b is lost to fraud.

I suppose that’s the cost of all of us cheating, but just a little bit.

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