Prone to Cheating

Dan Ariely contends that the vast majority of people are prone to cheating. He also thinks they are more willing to cheat on other people’s behalf than their own. People routinely struggle with two opposing emotions. They view themselves as honourable. But they also want to enjoy the benefits of a little cheating, especially if it reinforces their belief that they are a bit more intelligent or popular than they really are. They reconcile these two emotions by fudging—adding a few points to a self-administered IQ test, for example, or forgetting to put a few coins in an honesty box.

The amount of fudging that goes on depends on the circumstances. People are more likely to lie or cheat if others are lying or cheating, or if a member of another social group (such as a student wearing a sweatshirt from a rival university) visibly flouts the rules. They are more likely to lie and cheat if they are in a foreign country rather than at home. Or if they are using digital rather than real money. And people are more likely to break their own rules if they have spent the day resisting temptation: dieters often slip after a day of self-denial, for example.

What can be done about dishonesty? Harsh punishments are ineffective, since the cheat must first be caught. The trick is to nudge people to police themselves, by making it harder for them to rationalise their sins. For example, Mr Ariely finds that people are less likely to cheat if they read the Ten Commandments before doing a test, or if they have to sign a declaration of honesty before submitting their tax return. Another technique is to encourage customers to police suppliers: eBay, an online marketplace, hugely reduced cheating by getting buyers to rank sellers.

Adrian Wooldridge writing in The Economist