Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

How to extinguish those burning pants

July 14th, 2011

LiarWe all tell white lies and they don’t usually do much harm. But sometimes dishonesty is bigger than that. Sometimes the good things you’re trying to accomplish get sidetracked or even completely derailed by people cheating or being untruthful.

It’s a hard one to fix, not least because no one will admit to doing it. Fortunately, studies have found a number of ways to discourage dishonest behaviour.

Associate cheating with the “out-group”. A study involving university students paid to solve puzzles was set up so that the students could lie about how many they solved (and make more money). When the participants saw one student blatantly lie about his puzzle solving and collect maximum cash, other students were more likely to do the same. However, when the lying student was wearing a t-shirt from a rival university, cheating almost completely stopped. We don’t want to associate ourselves with outsiders who cheat.

Ask for an honesty promise up front. In an interview, behavioural economist Dan Ariely described an experiment in which he and his colleagues asked an insurance company to slightly alter the yearly mileage forms they sent to their customers. All the forms asked the customer to sign a statement promising truthful answers, but half of the forms had that statement at the top and half had it at the bottom. Drivers often understate their annual mileage to insurance companies, but those who signed at the top of their insurance form acknowledged driving 15% more miles than those who signed at the bottom. Once we’ve promised honesty, our preference for internal consistency (discussed in more detail here) makes us more likely to live up to it.

A Cheating Oldie But GoodieIt works in person, too. Angela Evans and Kang Lee told a hundred 8- to 16-year-olds that they would be paid if they got all the answers right on a trivia test (which included two unanswerable questions). About half the kids peeked at the answers, but when asked, most lied and said they hadn’t. Some of them were then asked to promise to tell the truth in response to the next question (which was, again, whether they had peeked). Those who had promised were much more likely to answer truthfully than those who weren’t asked to promise.

Reduce anonymity. A classic study done in the 1970s tested the honesty of over a thousand trick-or-treaters one Halloween. Children were given one candy bar, along with the opportunity to sneak more candy or steal small change from a bowl. Sometimes the kids were asked their names and addresses by the host and sometimes they weren’t – and significantly more children acted dishonestly when they were anonymous.

CHEAT 2 DIE!!1Reduce competitive pressure. Some participants in a puzzle-solving study were paid according to the number of puzzles they solved, while others were asked to compete against one another for their payments. Those who had to compete cheated more often – but this effect was almost always seen in those participants who weren’t good at puzzles. We tend to cheat more if we have more to gain.

Keep them real. This one’s weird, but people wearing sunglasses they believed were counterfeit were much more likely to cheat on a set of paid math problems than people wearing the identical sunglasses who believed they were authentic. The counterfeit-wearers also believed that other people were more likely to behave unethically. It appears that if you put people in a situation where they feel inauthentic, they will transfer that feeling to their behaviours.

Put eyes on the wall. This one’s even stranger. Staff members using an honour system to pay for their drinks in a communal coffee room weren’t paying very much – but placing a picture of a pair of eyes (looking directly at the observer) on the wall above the drink-making equipment more than doubled their contributions compared to a picture of flowers. The staff weren’t aware of the experiment, but their unconscious sense of being watched apparently made them more honest

That’s it! If you use these techniques, I guarantee you’ll reduce dishonesty in your organization by at least 50%.

I’m lying, of course. But at least now you know some ways to make me stop.

2 comments on 'How to extinguish those burning pants'

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  1. Tata

    15 Jul 11 at 8:44 am

    After reading the ‘eyes on the wall’ study some years back, I taped such a picture to the wall over my office coffee machine, where the mess was becoming a real problem. This proved both helpful and amusing. When asked where the picture came from, I of course lied about it.


    Carol Reply:

    [laughing] Of course you did.


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