This work by Dan Ariely is both informative and enjoyable. If you’re interested in behavioral economics, psychology or just about the concept of dishonesty in general, I recommend that you check out this book. His main thesis is that we, as human beings, all want to benefit from cheating, but only by a little bit. This is because we are also beings that want to think of ourselves as moral and honest. The constant push and pull from these two seemingly contradictory concepts is what Ariely’s book is all about. He refers to this as the “fudge factor.” What situations make us more likely to cheat or be dishonest? Which are more likely to make us tell the truth? Is being dishonest always a conscious act? If not, is there a way to control dishonesty? These are all very intriguing questions and Ariely provides an abundance of experiments throughout the book as evidence to support claims that attempt to answer them.
An experiment I particularly enjoyed was constructed to try to find out whether people are more likely to cheat if people around them are cheating as well. Ariely had one consistent task set-up throughout the book and would change variables to see what would happen. Students at a university were given a twenty question exam. One group was not allowed to cheat and on average, they scored 7/20. The remainder of the groups were allowed to cheat if they wanted. There was a shredder in the back which they were asked to use after comparing their tests to the answer sheet. They were then asked to tell the instructor how many questions they got right and they were paid accordingly. Without any other variables changed, the students cheated on average to improve by five questions for a total of 12/20. But would would happen if a student (a planted actor) announced after thirty seconds that he had finished and answered everything correctly? This scenario improved the average score to an astonishingly high 16/20. However, when Ariely changed this scenario slightly by making the student wear a sweatshirt from a rival university, cheating was barely above the control experiment at 9/20. This illustrates that people want to think of themselves as moral people most of the time, but are persuaded to cheat when someone from within their social group is cheating as well.
Some important questions were raised by Ariely that I would like to explore further:
Is it possible to be objective if you’re being paid? We as a society are well aware of conflicts-of-interest; they have permeated every aspect of culture. I think Ariely’s suggestion that we try to avoid them is a bit unrealistic, so we have to find other avenues.
Are dishonesty and cheating really contagious, and if so, how do we contain them?