Ariely reveals how we justify our dishonesty


Lindsey Kudaroski | Staff Writer

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers conducted an experiment that involved placing six cans of Coca-Cola in communal student refrigerators across campus.

In those refrigerators, they also placed plates of six $1 bills. When the researchers returned to see what remained in the refrigerators, the Coca-Colas had disappeared, but the dollar bills remained. Why was it that students would steal the sodas, but they wouldn’t steal the money?

The experiment was devised by Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University. Ariely is New York Times best-selling author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions and The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. In those books, Ariely uses his experiments in behavioral economics to show how humans defy reason in both personal and professional scenarios.

At 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater, Ariely will present some of the findings from his latest book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, to kick off Week Seven’s theme, “The Ethics of Cheating.” The book showcases the surprising ways humans rationalize dishonest behaviors, usually without even realizing it.

Ariely’s interest in cheating began with the news of the Enron scandal in 2001.

“I became interested in the question after Enron,” he said. “The question that I was curious about is whether dishonesty is best described by a few bad apples, or by lots of people who can cheat by a little bit.”

Most of Ariely’s experiments are relatively simple. Normally, they involve presenting subjects with a list of problems they must solve. Once the subjects have completed those problems, researchers ask them to report how many problems they have solved correctly. The subjects are then paid according to the number of correct answers that they report. What the they do not know, however, is that the researchers know the actual number of problems the subjects have solved. They have a tangible measurement of the degree to which people cheat.

The experiments can help better understand cheating in a variety of contexts, be it cheating in the workplace, the world of finance or in human relationships.

“The nice thing about (the experiments) is these are dishonesties that we can measure very precisely in terms of how dishonestly people behave,” Ariely said. “But it’s not in any particular context — it’s a general context, and because of that, it applies to many different situations.”

In other experiments, such as the one at the MIT, Ariely discovered that people’s tendency to cheat is linked to their distance from the money. When dishonesty involves stealing objects such as cans of soda from a refrigerator or pens from an office, it is more likely than when it concerns dollars and cents.

Ariely said he does believe instances of cheating have increased in the past 50 years, but not because he thinks people today are “worse.” Society, he said, tempts people to be dishonest in more ways — banking, accounting, and so on. Some of his experiment results show that as the distance between people and their actions increases, they can be more dishonest.

“Cheating on stock options is much easier than cheating in cash — cheating on credit cards is easier,” he said. “As society moves forward, we’re becoming more distanced from cash and from the consequences of our actions, and this is helping people be more dishonest.”

When people begin cheating in small ways, Ariely said, justifying cheating on a larger scale becomes easier for them.

“If we take all the small cases of people rounding corners, of cheating a little bit — in total, that adds to much more than things like Enron,” he said. “The little actions add together very quickly and become quite substantial. In our experiments, we find that the little actions are eventually much more devastating for the economy, that they fuel big actions.”

Ariely’s findings about the frequency of small instances of cheating concern him and fuel his interest in the subject.

“As the results show, and as I’ll discuss … we all have the capacity to cheat a little bit and think of ourselves as good people, and that’s incredibly dangerous,” he said. “Because of that, we need to understand it to a higher degree.”