What compels people to be dishonst? That’s a question that behavioral economist Dan Ariely explores in some of his more recent research. It’s convenient to divide the world into honest people and cheaters (you, my dear reader, must most certainly belong to the former of the two camps). However, his research finds that in reality, most cheating is not attributable to “a few bad apples.” Instead, most people cheat by just a little bit. It’s what he terms self-concept maintenance, or the fudge factor.
Basically, the theory goes as follows: we would like to have a leg up in life. People would rather get away with driving faster than the speed limit, with having to pay less money in taxes, with getting a better score on our test. However, we also like being able to think of ourselves as moral, honest people. Therefore, the average person engages in just a little bit of cheating. We do just enough to give ourselves a slight edge, while still being able to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is really honest.
Ariely and his co-authors have devised a rather brilliant way to measure cheating. He has individuals fill out as many puzzles (they involve looking at matrices, and finding the two numbers in each matrix that add up to ten. Think Sudoku meets Word Search) as they can in the course of a few minutes. They then go to the back of the room, put the paper in a shredder, and then report how many problems they solved. They are then paid a certain amount of money for every puzzle they solved.
What the participants don’t realize is that while the paper is making loud shredder noises and ripping the outside of the paper, the part with the puzzles remains intact. By doing this, they can measure reported solved puzzles versus actual solved ones. They find almost no evidence of huge cheating, of someone who solved 4 of 20 claiming they solved 18. However, the vast majority of individuals fudge their results a bit. The average individual increased their number of solved answers by just over one.
Also of importance, “removing” people from cash has a major impact on their propensity to cheat. For instance, people are much more likely to take a pencil from their office than they are to take its equivalent value in currency form from the petty cash drawer. For some reason, people find it easier to cheat when it comes to anything other than money.
This was again demonstrated by the puzzle-shredder experiment, in a slightly different form. This time though, instead of reporting their answers and being handed cash, respondents were given a token for each problem they solved. They then took the tokens a mere 12 feet to another table, and exchanged them for the same value in cash. The compensation for the experiment was “not” cash, but only for a few seconds. When compared to the case where cash was given, individuals cheated twice as much. The fact that people were receiving goods, even though they had a clear cash value, made cheating much easier to justify.
This experiment is especially salient to me given my time in Kenya. Police officers are constantly taking bribes from passengers. If you ride a minibus from Nanyuki to Nairobi, and know what you’re looking for, you can hardly fail to see bribes. However, here’s the part I always find most interesting: it’s never referred to as a bribe. It’s simply money for tea. (Or sometimes, soda). In fact, “he wanted some chai” is understood to mean someone is asking for a bribe. Moreover, when talking with police officers, customs agents, etc, it’s quite common to hear “well, perhaps you could buy me a soda.” These agents are not asking you to find the nearest vending machine and purchase them a Fanta. They are of course, asking for a bribe.
There are undoubtedly a multitude of reasons why corruption is rampant in the police force in Kenya. Non-competitive wages and an entrenched system certainly have something to do with it. However, my time in Kenya tells me that it isn’t just undergraduate students who cheat more when the stakes are for goods rather than money. Just as Carnegie Mellon students will cheat more when they’re playing for tokens instead of cash, Kenyan customs officials will tell you you’re entering a corruption-free zone while simultaneously asking for some chai.