Many of us like to think that we’re honest, upstanding individuals and that it’s a minority of society that actually lowers itself to lying and cheating. But researchers are finding that, actually, we’re not as virtuous as we think — and we all lie a little to make things swing in our favour.
Dan Ariely, a professor of economics at Duke University, wrote a fascinating article for the Wall Street Journal over the weekend about his experiments that investigate just how widespread cheating is. In particular, he describes one extremely interesting experiment:
“Much of what we have learned about the causes of dishonesty comes from a simple little experiment that we call the “matrix task,” which we have been using in many variations. It has shown rather conclusively that cheating does not correspond to the traditional, rational model of human behavior-that is, the idea that people simply weigh the benefits (say, money) against the costs (the possibility of getting caught and punished) and act accordingly.
“The basic matrix task goes as follows: Test subjects (usually college students) are given a sheet of paper containing a series of 20 different matrices (structured like the example you can see above) and are told to find in each of the matrices two numbers that add up to 10. They have five minutes to solve as many of the matrices as possible, and they get paid based on how many they solve correctly. When we want to make it possible for subjects to cheat on the matrix task, we introduce what we call the “shredder condition.” The subjects are told to count their correct answers on their own and then put their work sheets through a paper shredder at the back of the room. They then tell us how many matrices they solved correctly and get paid accordingly.
“What happens when we put people through the control condition and the shredder condition and then compare their scores? In the control condition, it turns out that most people can solve about four matrices in five minutes. But in the shredder condition, something funny happens: Everyone suddenly and miraculously gets a little smarter. Participants in the shredder condition claim to solve an average of six matrices-two more than in the control condition. This overall increase results not from a few individuals who claim to solve a lot more matrices but from lots of people who cheat just by a little.”
Along with other experiments, his work suggests that only a very small number of people — the real rotten apples of society that we tend to fixate on — lie at a high level. But virtually everybody — yes, even you — fibs a little here, a little there. We claim higher losses on insurance claims, overestimate our billable working hours, and make other small but sneaky claims to maximise our gains. It’s engrained in human nature to say things that result in positive outcomes, even if they’re not entirely true.
How can we stop people from lying? In fact, that’s exactly what Ariely is working on now. He’s found that reinforcing moral codes — like the 10 commandments — while people undertake tasks reduces the amount of lying that goes on.
While that sounds unfeasible in the real world, consider this: one of his recent projects involves moving the signature box on official forms to the top. That means that, when completing paperwork, the first thing people do is read the declaration “I promise that the information I am providing is true.” So far, his experiments show that even this minor tweak can make people lie less. Honest! [Wall Street Journal]
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