THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 43, Fall 2012

William A. McEachern, Editor


"Let me come right out and say it. They cheat. You cheat. And, yes, I also cheat from time to time," so begins Dan Ariely's new book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves (Harper, 2012). Dan is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke. I discussed his two earlier books, Predictably Irrational (Harper, 2008) and The Upside of Irrationality (Harper, 2010), in Issues 35 and 40 of The Teaching Economist.

Based on research by him and others, Ariely concludes that, while people want to view themselves as honest and honorable, the benefits of cheating can be tempting. So people cheat just enough to reap some benefits while still feeling good about themselves. He looks at all kinds of dishonesty. For example, people are more likely to be dishonest with nonmonetary objects such as pencils, Cokes, or tokens (that can be redeemed for cash) than with cash itself. In one experiment, he seeded refrigerators used in common in college dorms with six packs of Coke and with plates of dollar bills. The Cokes quickly disappeared, but nobody touched the cold cash (of course, seeing the cash, students may have figured something was up).

Ariely describes many fascinating experiments in the book, but my focus here is those findings that have implications for student behavior in coursework. We don't have the space to describe the experiments themselves, but here are the relevant findings.

People cheat more when under stress and when their mind is occupied with other concerns. This, to me, describes perfectly the test-taking environment (though Ariely doesn't note that connection).

Creative people are more prone to cheat, apparently because they can tell themselves a better story to rationalize their actions.

While creativity contributes to cheating, intelligence does not seem to be a factor. More intelligent people are no more likely to cheat than less intelligent people.

Cheating is infectious and usually increases when others around us are observed cheating. But that depends on who is seen to be cheating. If the observed cheater is part of the social group, cheating becomes more acceptable and increases. Thus, if one or two members of the inside crowd cheat, this infects those around them, which in turn infects those around them and so on. But if the cheater is an outsider, observers become more ethical out of desire to distance themselves from that person.

If a student becomes annoyed with the instructor, because of some slight or some perceived unfairness, that student can more easily rationalize cheating as a way of getting even. Cheating becomes retribution. Ask yourself this question: Can students find something about your course to be annoyed with or that they believe is unfair? If so, they can more easily justify cheating.

Honesty is subject to moral suasion. People cheat less if reminded not to, even if a nonexistent honor code is mentioned. People also cheat less when monitored.

Finally, a word about cultural differences with dishonesty. Yes, they exist. For example, in some cultures plagiarism is not taken very seriously. It's more of a cat-and-mouse game between students and faculty. It's not cheating that's viewed negatively, it's getting caught.

The book is not tightly written, but Ariely's informal style, supported with research findings and personal observations, makes for an enjoyable read. He often relates how he came up with an idea, and in this regard, he reminds me of the late physicist, Richard Feynman.

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