Do most people cheat?

May 25, 2012

Yes, most people are dishonest, according to Dan Ariely. Not all the time, or in big ways. It’s the widespread minor lying and cheating that really hurt society, however, he says.

Ariely is a professor of behavior economics (a field I never heard of before), and his examples tend in involve cheating for monetary benefit. I suppose a large amount of cheating is done for that reason, and certainly it would be easier to measure if you’re trying to quantify people’s tendency to lie and cheat.

I wonder whether his results would change any, however, if he were dealing with lying that was aimed primarily at influencing others’ opinions. I assume it would be even more widespread, but would it show the same patterns in terms of what does and does not dissuade people from lying?

And what about lying that does not affect us directly, but affects someone else? Do people lie more readily to gain something for themselves, or to make someone else look bad? (And of course we don’t usually think of it as lying, just selective use of the truth.)

I also can’t help wondering whether Ariely’s results are skewed by the fact that his test subjects are usually college students. I can’t imagine that I would have cheated on his matrix test then or now, because I just don’t cheat on tests. But I know that in other areas, I was less honest at that age than I am now.

As a college student, I would keep extra change that a store clerk gave me by mistake. Now I promptly return it. As a young adult in the workplace, I would not intentionally cheat but I would not readily admit a mistake as I would now.

I don’t know whether it’s having children and feeling a need to be a role model, feeling more responsibility to society in general, or just the overall process of maturing. But I would not think that the behavior of college students can be fairly extrapolated to the population at large.

It’s not that I find it hard to believe that most people cheat in little ways from time to time. That’s just one manifestation of people’s fallen nature. If I am scrupulously honest with money now, it is in part because of a couple of instances of minor dishonesty as a college student that convinced me that the guilty conscience was not worth whatever small benefits my dishonesty had gained me.

I think his studies show some interesting insights into what measures are more effective in preventing cheating. I have read elsewhere about the effect of being reminded of moral codes, whether by directing seeing/hearing them, or simply by talk about God or the Bible. I am somewhat surprised that the prospect of getting caught doesn’t have more of an effect – I think it would for me.