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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Under the Radar Dishonesty and Self-Perception

How much dishonesty will an average person allow herself? Behavioral economists Nina Mazar (Toronto), On Amir (UCSD) and Dan Ariely (Duke) conducted a series of experiments to understand the dishonesty levels and processes by everyday people. They asked 326 students to take a multiple-choice general knowledge test, with payment for every correct answer. They gave some students the opportunity to cheat, for example by giving some of them bubble sheets with the correct answers seemingly inadvertently shaded in gray or by allowing them to save the sheets and just report the number of correct answers. Compared with others, those with the opportunity to cheat without the fear of getting caught changed about 20 percent of their answers, not more; not less.

The paper develops a broader theory of "self-concept maintenance" arguing that people allow themselves some degree of dishonesty before they must change their self-perceptions from honest to dishonest people. Here is the abstract:

Dishonesty plays a large role in the economy. Causes for (dis)honest behavior seem to be based partially on external rewards, and partially on internal rewards. Here, we investigate how such external and internal rewards work in concert to produce (dis)honesty. We propose and test a theory of self-concept maintenance that allows people to engage to some level in dishonest behavior, thereby benefiting from external benefits of dishonesty, while maintaining their positive view about themselves in terms of being honest individuals. The results show that (1) given the opportunity to engage in beneficial dishonesty, people will engage in such behaviors; (2) the amount of dishonesty is largely insensitive to either the expected external benefits or the costs associated with the deceptive acts; (3) people know about their actions but do not update their self-concepts; (4) causing people to become more aware of their internal standards for honesty decreases their tendency for deception; and (5) increasing the "degrees of freedom" that people have to interpret their actions increases their tendency for deception. We suggest that dishonesty governed by self-concept maintenance is likely to be prevalent in the economy, and understanding it has important implications for designing effective methods to curb dishonesty.

The NYT reports on this study this week, quoting Dan Ariely explaining that "essentially you can fool the conscience a little bit and make small transgressions without waking it up. It all goes under the radar because you are not paying that much attention." I think this article has significant implications for legal studies and policy. One of many interesting findings in the experiments which I found interesting is the effect of priming on the levels of honesty, including reminding people just before they have the opportunity to cheat of an honor code or of the Ten Commandments [equally effective references in case you were wondering...].

Posted by Orly Lobel on November 28, 2007 at 04:38 PM | Permalink

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