Almost Everyone Cheats, But Only Just a Little Bit

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It starts with a quick, sideways glance at your neighbor; a harmless motion. The eyes lock on to the paper she's hovering over, then to a question number, and finally -- and most importantly -- to the answer. After a mere second your head snaps back to your own test. Nobody noticed. You jot down the stolen answer that had previously eluded you and move on to the next question. You know what you did was cheating, but it was only once... It's not a big deal...

Adulthood presents its own array of misdemeanor dishonesty. Maybe it's sneaking in a few extra items on your property insurance claim or neglecting to report some minor income on your taxes. But that's okay. Everyone does it...

In fact, a lot of people do do it. In 2003, the Insurance Services Office reported that 10% of total payments for property and casualty insurance, roughly \$24 billion annually, are for fraudulent claims. Tax cheating is even more prevalent. Each year, there's more than a \$300 billion gap between what people should pay according to the law and what is actually paid.

For many, minor dishonesty is a daily occurrence, yet they are able to shirk off their sins and live knowing that they are generally good and honest.

Duke University psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely has spent a lot of time studying dishonesty. He and his colleagues have tested thousands of subjects from various countries under controlled condition, and have arrived at an intriguing conclusion.

"We find that almost everyone cheats but only by a limited amount."

The specific source for this sweeping statement is a subtle test of dishonesty called the matrix task. Ariely recently described it in an op-ed published to the Journal of Clinical investigation:

"Participants are presented with a test sheet with 20 matrixes, with each matrix consisting of 12 numbers. Participants’ task is to find and circle in each matrix two numbers that add up exactly to 10 (e.g., 1.53 and 8.47). For each correctly solved matrix, we pay \$0.50. After five minutes, participants count the number of correctly solved matrixes on their test sheet and write down their performance on a collection slip. In our baseline control condition, participants submit both the test sheet and the collection slip. The experimenter then checks each participant’s performance and pays them accordingly. In our treatment condition, we instruct participants to shred their test sheet and only submit the collection slip to the experimenter. In this latter condition, participants face a conflict of interest at the end of the task: they know that they can either be honest or overstate their performance to earn more money.

What Ariely has consistently found is that virtually everyone given the opportunity to cheat does, but only by a little. Out of a possible twenty matrices, they usually "solve" between two and three more than participants in the control condition. Even with no risk of being caught, they still hold back. Why?

"People behave dishonestly enough to profit but honestly enough to delude themselves of their own integrity. A little bit of dishonesty gives a taste of profit without spoiling a positive self-view," Ariely explained in 2008. He added more detail in his recent op-ed. "In other words, if people cheat too much, it becomes hard to rationalize away their immoral conduct so that they can continue feeling good about themselves in terms of their morality."

If Ariely's finding was a glass of water, it can be viewed as a half-empty or half-full. Though many choose to cheat when given a clear opportunity, they do hold back. Humans may not be angels, but at least they're not demons.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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