The observable examined

Are we all cheaters?

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We are all cheaters and liars: to a degree. At least, that is what Ariely would have us believe. The relevant article appeared a little over a week ago in the WSJ and is pompously titled – Why we lie? Ironically, the title itself is a bit of lie because Ariely makes no attempt to really settle the issue, as the title would lead us to believe. But the hook surely served the editor’s or Ariely’s purpose of attracting eyeballs.

That there is cheating among the populace is not entirely news. It runs the whole gamut from “very minor” to Wall Street style mega embezzlement. Collectively, corporations lose Millions (I think it is more like Billions) when employees help themselves to office supplies for personal use. There are others who misuse customer service provisions, such as the 30-day return policy, when the requirements for a particular item are short term. Such egregious behavior among the lay folk is rampant and the list of situations is pretty long.  This behavior cuts across socioeconomic and educational boundaries.

What is novel in Ariely’s research is that he and his collaborators have systematically catalogued how and to what extent people cheat. While the research is fascinating, the explanations provided for the underlying causes are, in my opinion, superficial or weak. For example, in the studies cited in the article, the basic task assigned to the subjects is to complete as many Math matrices as possible in a finite time. Reporting of number of matrices completed is based on an honor system. The amount of money offered is 50 cents per completed matrix. In this case, subjects cheat by over-reporting number of matrices completed. When the stakes are raised to $10 per matrix, cheating is reduced. The explanation offered is that the participant sense of integrity balances out his/her instinct to cheat. Alternatively, we could argue that a smaller prize may have been suggesting that the task is easy and so fewer solved matrices must imply poor cognitive ability – a blow to self esteem, higher monies must mean a difficult task and solving fewer means self-esteem intact. Tversky and Kahneman (fantastic research on judgment and decision making), I suspect, would have preferred to explain this as at least in part, a framing bias: the setup of the problem and instructions biases the subjects. I wonder what the behavior would be if subjects are paid a fixed amount no matter how many matrices they complete.

The answer to why we lie is unlikely to be a simple one. It must surely involve our sense of morality (already we are on a slippery slope here), sense of entitlement, situational demands (such as hiding uncomfortable truths from the dying), sense of fairness, cultural sensibilities, to name a few. I am pretty sure, the morality line for every individual, lies just to the right of her (meaning it moves with his/her own actions).  But ultimately the explanation must come from the underlying biology and evolutionary pressures and adaptations.  Paul Zak has written about the “moral molecule” –oxytocin and its central importance in building trusting relationships. A second book by Christopher Boehm tackles morality from a anthropologist’s viewpoint. An excellent review of both books can be found here – Kin and kindness. Both of these books are a step in that direction.

Update [07/09/12] – There is a very interesting review of Jay Magill’s book Sincerity in today’s WSJ. For those interested, I think this will complement the discussion here. The review also mentions Dan Ariely’s new book – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.


Written by asterix98

June 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

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