In The Wall Street Journal last week, Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, shared lessons from his forthcoming book, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves.”
Few people can claim total honesty – no lying, no cheating, not even a little. But the great majority of us do the right thing when given the right prompts. Knowing that might make all the difference for a campaign to fight dishonesty on insurance claims, school applications or tax returns.
The typical model for what causes or prevents cheating posits an inside-the-mind battle between the benefits of cheating versus the risk of being caught. But these factors have little impact on small acts of dishonesty according to Ariely (though we still must guard against and punish flagrant misbehavior – think Ponzi schemes or outright tax evasion, for example). The professor writes:
“Does the prospect of heavy fines or increased enforcement really make someone less likely to cheat on their taxes, to fill out a fraudulent insurance claim, to recommend a bum investment or to steal from his or her company? It may have a small effect on our behavior, but it is probably going to be of little consequence when it comes up against the brute psychological force of ‘I’m only fudging a little’ or ‘Everyone does it’ or ‘It’s for a greater good.’”
So what does work according to Ariely’s research?
- Reminders of morality at the point of decision. This might be done by recalling a holy teaching or an academic integrity policy or a professional code of ethics. We want to believe the best of ourselves. Reminded of that, most of us behave honestly.
- When a respondent is asked to attest to his or her own truthfulness – for example, a signature saying that all information provided is true – that attestation should come at the beginning and not the end of the process (e.g., at the top of a form, not the bottom).
- Never underestimate the importance of discouraging small transgressions because they are so contagious. Anybody who observes a cheater or liar getting away with something is more likely to imitate such behavior. We even imitate ourselves; a little dishonesty today will make it easier to do worse tomorrow.
Frank Ovaitt is President and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations.