Imagine you are sitting in a room taking a problem solving test. There is no one else in the room, no cameras, no fancy mirrors. It’s just you. Next to you is the answer sheet and an envelope with $20 in it. When you’ve finished the test, you’re instructed to correct your own test, take $1 from the envelope for each problem you solved correctly, burn your test on your way out the door and hand the envelope and answer sheet to the proctor outside the room. What would you do if you scored correctly on 10 of the problems? What do you think the average person would do?
This was a study reported on in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty by Dan Ariely. The working theory going into many of these studies was that in this type of situation, people will simply take the all or almost all the money since no one could check how many they got right. What they found was otherwise – the average person cheated, but only a little.
It’s true that they couldn’t tell exactly who was cheating, but they could compare the number of correct answers the average person scored when there was no opportunity for cheating. Certain scenarios resulted in a greater amount of stealing, but never to the extreme*.
The reality is that we could all justify a few of the answers that we almost got correct and rationalize to ourselves why we should round up our score. This is the true temptation, not taking all the money, but instead being a little generous to ourselves. For most of us, if we just took all the money, we would have a hard time facing ourselves in the mirror.
The reality is that almost all of us think of ourselves as being pretty good people. Sure we make mistakes, but mostly we do what’s right. Even when no ones watching, we don’t cheat a lot, but sometimes we rationalize a little.
The temptation to cheat is not to cheat big, but to cheat a little. Think about it.
*They did show that if we cheat past the lines we’ve drawn, we can end up not caring and go to the extreme. Similar to the effect of binge eating when we are on a diet and we take one bite of cake at the end of the day. Turns out that if we rationalize to the point of Sometimes crossing the line a little, can have very bad effects. The book is worth reading.
Photo Credit: Stéphanie Kilgast