The moral code and dishonesty

Dan Ariely is a Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University in North Carolina. His recent research focuses on what drives people to cheat and what motivates them to be honest. The results of the research are fascinating and provide an interesting basis for how we might think about governance and protecting the integrity of our public institutions.

In an attempt to understand human behaviour, Professor Ariely has, over a number of years, conducted hundreds of experiments involving tens of thousands of people. What he has discovered is that the majority of people are only a little bit dishonest. The reason that people generally limit their dishonesty is that most people like to see themselves as good and honest people. By keeping cheating to a minimum, there is no need to re-evaluate the image you hold of yourself. However, there are some people who are quite dishonest who are prepared to cheat a lot.

When all of the cheating was analysed, the result was that collectively, the little cheaters were doing far more damage than the big cheaters, which is ultimately why public institutions should sweat the small stuff.

Here’s how one of the experiments worked. Participants were given five minutes to solve as many simple maths problems as possible. At the end of the five minutes, every person was asked to mark their own test, shred the paper and collect $1 for every problem they solved correctly. What the participants did not know is that the shredder had been tampered with and did not actually shred their paper. On average most people had solved four questions correctly, but claimed to have solved six correctly, hence cheating the system out of $2. A very small number of participants were big cheaters and claimed to have got all 20 questions correct.

Over 40,000 people have participated in these experiments, and only twenty of those have turned out to be big cheaters. These big cheaters have collectively stolen $400 from the research project; whilst at the same time, over 28,000 people  have proven themselves to be little cheaters who have collectively stolen over $50,000.

With so many people being prepared to cheat a little, it is in the best interests of our public institutions to find a way to disrupt even the smallest dishonesty.

Without unpacking all of Professor Ariely’s research on the many ways you can do this, one of the simplest and most compelling ways of disrupting people’s inclination to be a little bit dishonest is to remind them of a moral code.

Professor Ariely ran a similar experiment to the one outlined above; however, on this occasion, 400 participants were first asked to recall as many of the Ten Commandments that they could remember. Regardless of how many of the Commandments they could recall, and what religion, if any, they practised, nobody cheated. It would seem that being reminded of a moral code, even if it’s not the specific moral code that you prescribe to, disrupts your inclination to cheat.

Our public institutions have codes of conduct and although different codes might be expressed in different ways, they are ultimately about good behaviour. Reminding people of values and ethics and embedding them within public
administration, will, as this research has proven, disrupt dishonesty.

This article was published in Issue 6 -  January 2017 of ICAC's newsletter.


Dis(Honesty): The Truth about Lies 2015, documentary, Salty Features, USA. ​​​​​​​

Ariely, D 2012, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, Harper Perennial, New York.