People are more likely to cheat on tests if they are a step removed from the cash payoff, according to Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely. Managers, for instance, padded expenses more often when their assistants were the ones compiling reports instead of themselves. Ariely also found people who knowingly wore fake designer sunglasses were more than twice as likely to cheat later on an unrelated task than those wearing the real thing. His conclusion? A step in the direction of deception makes the next step toward it easier because the way a person defines themselves will shift in the direction of deception.
If these tests reveal how to encourage cheating, then how can we encourage honesty?
Two studies offer a clue to one way. In a math task using tokens as rewards, participants were first told to recall as much of the Ten Commandments as they could, before taking the test. This group didn’t cheat at all on the test. At the same time, without a Ten Commandments refresher did cheat. In another study, an auto insurer found requiring car owners to sign their names at the top of an insurance application led to greater honesty about driving habits, even when it meant higher premiums.
It seems a reminder about ethical behavior influences our immediate choices.