29 June 2012


"We like to believe that a few bad apples spoil the virtuous bunch.  But research shows that everyone cheats a little ~ right up to the point where they lose their sense of integrity."

Thus begins a recent Wall Street Journal essay titled Why We Lie by Dan Ariely, professor of behavior economics at Duke University.  For more than a decade, Ariely and his team have been conducting experiments to determine the extent to which people lie or cheat, what influences lead them to do so, and what we can do to discourage the behavior.

The link will take you to Ariely's essay, which includes an embedded video interview in which he "explains the psychology that makes us willing to cheat more or less depending on the circumstances, and what we can do to resist temptation".  There are also tabs to other videos and to interactive graphics.

Bottom line, "Everyone has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everyone cheats ~ just a little.  Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations.  On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible.  On the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people.  Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society."

Interestingly, it is not so much an actual material benefit that is the prime influence on a decision to cheat, nor is it the probability of getting caught which chiefly prevents us.  A number of conditions (see image above, click to enlarge) contribute to our willingness to tell a small lie, to break the speed limit by a few mph, to pad our timesheet at work, or to make up a harmless story to explain why we were late.  Among them ~

  • A more distant, rather than an immediate, payoff
  • The example of someone else cheating first
  • Feeling stressed or depleted
  • Thinking that others may benefit from our act
  • A conflict of interest
  • The ability to rationalize our act
  • Living in a culture in which cheating is, if not encouraged, nevertheless commonly practiced
So what really works in preventing otherwise good people from yielding to temptation in small ways?  Apparently not laws or regulations.  Supervision helps.  So do honor pledges, and moral reminders at the moment when temptation is strongest.  Add to that (based on my own life experience) the force of habit ~ over time, if I've achieved a feeling of virtue by being truthful even when it might cause embarrassment, by not boosting that candy bar when no one is looking, by being courteous in traffic rather than bulling my way through, that can be a powerful motivator to continue practicing virtue, whether or not anyone notices.  

But each day, each moment, presents a fresh point of decision.  I invite you to read Ariely's essay at the link above.  He describes the experiments which brought him to his conclusions about cheating.  Ask yourself, "In that situation, what would I have done?"  It's easy to sit at home and believe that one would do the right thing.  But when confronted by real temptation, one's response doesn't always measure up.  That's not necessarily a damning moment.  It can be a learning moment.  "Oh, so that's what it feels like to give in.  Hmm.  I think I'll make a better choice next time."  Hopefully.

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