What makes us cheat, and what makes us honest?

by Pop on August 28, 2010

Post image for What makes us cheat, and what makes us honest?

And the dangers of “Fake it ’til you make it”

We’ve all cheated in some way or another. Maybe you tricked your little sister into a bad trade at Monopoly. Maybe you copied an answer off the test next to you. Hopefully, those minor indiscretions never evolved into major betrayals at work or in relationships later on. But psychologists and economists have recently run a multitude of tests to help determine what makes us cheat and how to stop it.

The results are pretty surprising and, at times, counterintuitive. Our propensity to cheat doesn’t seem to have to do with getting caught. It doesn’t even seem to do with how much you gain by cheating. Instead, our sense of self and our peers heavily influence how honest we are.

Wearing a knock off makes you less honest.

I don’t wear knock-offs. Mainly that’s because I don’t wear expensive designer brands. Mainly that’s because I am a man. (Apologies to men who wear expensive designer brands. Blatant stereotyping, I know.)

It turns out that my avoidance of knock-off brands is a good thing. And all you people out there who think getting a knock-off makes you “frugal” might want to think twice, if a recent study by Duke professor Dan Ariely, and Harvard professors Francesca Gino and Michael Norton is to be believed. You might recognize Ariely as the author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality—two of the best known books in the pop economics field.

The researchers gave a group of women pairs of expensive Chloe sunglasses. They told half of the group that they were knock offs and the other half that they were real. In truth, they were all the real deal. While wearing the glasses, the testers performed a series of mathematical puzzles in a short amount of time. After the time was up, they were asked to grade themselves, but unbeknownst to them, the professors were monitoring their performance and how honest they were in the self-scoring.

Of the people who thought they were wearing authentic Chloe sunglasses, 30% cheated. But among the people who thought they wore fakes, a full 70% inflated their scores. The researchers found similar findings when asking them to perform other tasks. What’s more, when the researchers asked them to rate others on how often they thought various methods of cheating went on, the people who thought they were wearing fakes had a more cynical view.

Why do the ones who think they’re wearing fakes cheat more? Ariely & Co. think that the faking gets internalized. Those who wear fakes feel phony themselves, and thus are more apt to cheat and think others are cheaters. That’s quite a price to pay for being frugal, though I guess real frugalists wouldn’t care to fake designer duds.

We’re likely to cheat, but only a little.

In another Ariely study, 791 students were asked to take a series of tests and then grade themselves. They earned more money the more they got right.

Sadly, most students did cheat. But only five cheated the maximum amount possible. The others just gave themselves a little boost during the scoring. The results didn’t change no matter how high a chance the students had of getting “caught”. Whether they were asked to turn it into an instructor, just speak their answers to the instructor, or take the money from the jar themselves, the students cheated the same amount.

Tactics that did reduce cheating? Asking the testers before the experiment to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember or to read and sign an honor code.

Another surprising deterrent: Increasing the amount the students gained by cheating. If the student got an extra 10 or 50 cents for each “correct” question, cheating was high. But if they increased the reward to $2.50 or $5, cheating dropped to zero.

In my mind, this could indicate that the students didn’t really care about the money. They just didn’t want to look stupid. Increasing the financial rewards for cheating could have just made the students take the self-grading more seriously and outweigh their aversion to looking dumb. I wonder how the test would turn out without any financial incentive…but I digress.

You’re more likely to cheat if your peers do.

What if we throw one more wrench into the mix? In another version, Ariely had students from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh take the test. But he also hired an actor, who after just 30 seconds would stand up, say he answered all the questions correctly, and ask what he could do. The instructor would give him all the money and tell him he could go.

In other words, the students were witness to another supposed student who cheated in a very transparent way and got away with it. But how that affected their own honesty varied. If the actor was wearing a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, the University of Pittsburgh students would actually become more honest, having witnessed someone outside their peer group cheat. If the actor was wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, the students would become less honest.

The message there: If you associate with cheaters, you’re more likely to become a cheater yourself.

Check out the video below to see Ariely talk about some of these experiments and others he’s run on cheating. The stuff on dishonesty begins at the 4:15 mark. It’s part of the TED series of talks, which I’m a huge fan of. I promise that the entire 15 minutes is worth watching.

Note to self: If you ever sign up to do tests in an academic study, you are never being tested on what you think the test is on. And there’s always someone watching.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan August 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Cheating is pretty regular in the adult culture. We look for as many loop holes as we can when filling out IRS statements, look for ways to get out of speeding tickets and even find ways of going around the truth with our spouses. What is the definition of “cheating” anyway. The current generation watched a President lie and get away with it on television- by going around a definition. Now they buy a house just before they permit their “too big” house go to foreclosure….
Sorry- pretty cynical on this particular topic. I pay my tickets and taxes- and am amazed that others can justify not doing it because “everyone does it”.

Pop August 28, 2010 at 9:06 pm

@Jan Agreed. The more people see cheating, the more they’re liable to cheat themselves. I feel like there’s a little bit of a positive message in the study that showed people cheat less after trying to remember the Ten Commandments or signing an honor code. Even atheists were less likely to cheat after writing the Commandments, which leaves me some hope that honesty can be taught/reinforced.

Rob Bennett August 29, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Even atheists were less likely to cheat after writing the Commandments, which leaves me some hope that honesty can be taught/reinforced.


A big problem today is that many people are overtly hostile to the idea of good being reinforced. We humans need such reinforcement daily. It doesn’t have to be religious. It can be. But something as simple as watching Leave It to Beaver can change behavior. But I have heard people mock Leave It to Beaver. That makes it sort of hard for good to gain much traction.

We are influenced by everything. We should aim for the good in everything. We of course will not always achieve it (why do I even feel a need to say that?). But we should always aim high. If we always aim high, we will end up hitting high more often than if we fail to aim high.

This is not even a tiny bit complex. But it is controversial among many today.


Jeff @ Sustainable life blog August 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

Interesting post, Pop.

I was semi surprised about the amount of money to be gained by cheating stopped the cheating. Could it be that because they were gaining so much, they felt guilty about cheating to earn that much more money? I mean a dime is a dime, but five bucks is FIVE BUCKS. You cant get much with a dime these days, but you can get something with 5 bucks.

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