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Behavioral Economist’s Talk on Dishonesty Inspires Lively Discussion

FullTextImage/img/@altDr. Dan Ariely discusses dishonesty in Gillis Theater during the 2014 VMI Honor Summit. -- VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 24, 2014 – Everybody lies, sometimes. Everybody cheats, sometimes. There are ways, though, to manipulate the environment so that these evasions of the truth will happen with less frequency.

This theory of what might be called “truth management” was the topic of behavioral economist Dr. Dan Ariely’s keynote speech at the 2014 VMI Honor Summit, an event meant to follow up on last year’s honor conference at VMI’s Center for Leadership and Ethics.

The honor summit drew approximately 80 participants, including 21 faculty and staff, from predominantly East Coast colleges and universities, all with honor codes. Two participants flew in from Texas A&M University, while other groups came from as far south as The Citadel, in Charleston, S.C., and as far north as the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

Ariely, who is the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, is the author of three best-selling books that attempt to use economic theories to explain why individuals make the decisions they do. His most recent book is, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.

At VMI, Ariely chose as the title of his remarks, “Dishonesty: How Good People Can Misbehave and Still Think of Themselves as Good.” Kicking off what would become an hour of back-and-forth dialogue with his audience, Ariely began by asking the members of the audience in Gillis Theater to raise their hands if they’d lied in the past year. Almost everyone in the auditorium raised his or her hand, including the speaker himself.

“We often change the truth … for all sorts of reasons,” Ariely noted. This is particularly true for students, he remarked, because their social and professional realms have almost a 100 percent overlap. There, he said, one of the main goals of the social realm – being liked – is often in direct conflict with one of the main goals of the professional/learning realm –ensuring fair behavior by all.

Ariely noted that the kind of trust an honor code strives to build isn’t just a feel-good emotion. “Honesty is a social good,” he explained. “If we stop trusting each other, society deteriorates pretty rapidly.”

With that precept established, Ariely then gave several examples in which people were able to cheat and get away with it, and did so with abandon.

In one of those instances, people were told they’d be paid $1 for each math problem they solved correctly. The catch was that the number of problems solved correctly had to be self-reported – and in the overwhelming majority of instances, people said they’d solved just a few more problems correctly than they actually did. They were therefore able to increase their payback.

Ariely noted that this experiment has been done with over 40,000 people so far. Of that number, over 28,000 have cheated at least a little bit – and as a group, they’ve netted a collective total of about $60,000 for their dishonesty.

The cheating gets even worse, he continued, when people see someone else cheat. In the case of the math problem experiment, the researchers changed the parameters of the experiment by giving their subjects an envelope of money up front, and telling them they could keep the entire amount of money in the envelope if they solved all of the problems correctly within the allotted time.

They then hired an acting student to stand up and announce, “I’m done. Can I go now?” well before anyone else had finished.

When fellow participants saw the acting student leave with a full envelope of money, the numbers of people cheating rose sharply. This was particularly true, he said, when the acting student wore a shirt with the name of the school at which the experiment was being conducted. If the acting student wore a shirt with the name of a rival school – and thus branded himself or herself as a social outsider – the amount of cheating dropped drastically.

“[Dishonesty is] not about being caught,” said Ariely. “It’s about being socially acceptable.”

In another, similar experiment, people were told to put coins in a vending machine and get candy. Unbeknownst to the participants, the machine had been rigged to give them their money back, and the candy. The researchers had placed a large sign on the machine urging anyone who witnessed the machine malfunctioning to call a telephone number that was prominently displayed. Ariely said that no one called that number, although several people did call their friends to tell them about the free candy.

In this case, Ariely said, the individuals who cheated the vending machine company justified their behavior by saying they were “balancing Karma”: paying themselves back for all of the past instances in which vending machines had taken their money and given them nothing at all in return.

Thanks to the math problem and vending machine experiments, and others, Ariely and his fellow researchers have learned that people can cheat and still feel good about themselves. It’s that balance of wanting benefit for one’s self versus wanting to feel good about one’s self, which drives such behavior, the behavioral economist explained.

Ariely has found that one effective way to discourage dishonesty is to prompt people to think of their own moral codes before they are placed in a situation in which they might be tempted to cheat. In one experiment at Univeristy of California-Los Angeles, 500 students were asked to recall the 10 commandments and write them down. Not a single student could recall all of the commandments, but not a single one cheated in the experiment which came afterward.

Subsequently, Ariely conducted experiments at MIT, which does not have an honor code, and at Princeton University, which has a stringent honor code, complete with a week-long training for freshmen. He found the same results that he had at UCLA: students who were reminded of their own moral codes did not cheat.

“A week-long crash course in morality [as is the case at Princeton] doesn’t seem to have any effect two weeks down the road,” said Ariely. “What does help is getting people to think about their own morality just before they are tempted to misbehave.”

Near the end of his remarks, Ariely gave two examples of behaviors, one relatively uncommon, and the other extremely common. Ariely asked his audience to consider why people typically don’t leave restaurants without paying for their meals, when this is relatively easy to do. He then explained that nearly everyone would feel too guilty to do this. Many of those same people, though, have illegally downloaded software or music on their computers, and they don’t feel guilty at all.

“It’s really about caring,” said Ariely. “How do we get people to care?”

Preliminary plans call for the honor conference to be held in odd-numbered years, while the Honor Summit will be held in even-numbered years, said Capt. Beth Stefanik, communications specialist at the Center for Leadership and Ethics. “[The Honor Summit] is a way to continue the discussions between honor conferences,” Stefanik explained.

–Mary Price