Lying and cheating

Dear colleagues,

You're an honest person, no doubt. But how much do other people lie and cheat? And, really, do you do it just a little bit?

These questions are important in universities. Teachers make efforts to prevent and penalise cheating by students. As colleagues, we value being able to trust each other when telling about plans and achievements. It can be disturbing to find out that some people get ahead by deception rather than hard work.

Although lying and cheating are important in our lives, how much do we know about them? Did you know there is research on lying? Is there such a thing as evidence-based responses to cheating in universities?

The most enjoyable way to learn about the latest research on lying is to get hold of Dan Ariely's new book The (honest) truth about dishonesty: how we lie to everyone - especially ourselves. Ariely reports on eye-opening research on lying - much of it his own research - and does it in an incredibly engaging fashion. There are many insights here for academic life.

Some of the experiments Ariely reports are quite simple yet highly revealing. He put packs of Coca-Cola in communal refrigerators in student residences and found they had all been consumed within three days. But when he put paper trays holding half a dozen dollar bills in the same refrigerators, the bills remained untouched. The implication is that students are quite willing to take ("steal") someone else's Coke - which has no explicit monetary value - but reluctant to take someone else's cash (p. 32).

This sort of experiment is like a pilot for something more systematic. Ariely and his co-investigators designed a task, solving a particular type of puzzle, that gave fairly consistent results. People - students in particular, who were the usual subjects - could solve, on average, 4 of the puzzles in five minutes. In condition one, after the five minutes, subjects brought their puzzles to the experimenter and received a payment for each one solved. This was the no-cheating condition. In condition two, after the five minutes, subjects were instructed to shred their puzzles and then tell the experimenter how many they had solved. In this condition, they could cheat without being detected - no one would know how many they had actually solved. Neither could the investigators, but they could add up the total number of puzzles solved by a group and see how many more were claimed than in condition one.

The answers are intriguing, but before I tell you, please say out loud what you think happened. Were the students honest? Did they cheat to the maximum, claiming they had solved 20 puzzles? Ariely makes a passing comment that, when giving talks, his audiences claimed not to be surprised by the results he reported. People would hear the answer and then imagine that that's what they thought all along - a form of self-deception After he started asking people to predict what happened before he told them, the no-surprise claims disappeared. (p. 149).

What happened with the puzzles? Instead of the average of 4 solved, the figure went up to 6. On average, students would cheat a bit if they couldn't be detected, but only a bit. Few made exorbitant claims. Ariely's explanation is that the subjects wanted to maintain their self-image as being basically honest, while still benefiting from a certain level of cheating. No doubt some subjects were totally honest and some greatly exaggerated their puzzle-solving; the average behaviour was a modest level of cheating.

This basic finding then prompted the investigators into all sorts of other tests. Would cheating increase if more money was paid for correct puzzles, $10 each rather than 50c each? Does cheating increase if a person's willpower has been depleted by a previous task? Does cheating increase if a subject - a confederate of the investigators - gets up after a minute and announces he has solved all 20 puzzles, a blatant example of cheating?

Ariely addresses all sorts of fascinating questions. How do golfers cheat? Does wearing fake designer clothes make a person more likely to cheat? Are creative people more likely to cheat? Is cheating contagious? Can receiving a gift affect your assessment of art works? Is cheating more common in some countries than others? Will insurance companies jump at the chance to save money by redesigning their claim forms to improve the honesty of policy-holders?

According to Ariely, most people cheat in little ways and a few have no compunction in cheating in big ways. His most dispiriting finding is that most people lie to themselves about their own achievements: after they do this, they convince themselves that they haven't. The experiments to test this are most ingenious.

There are many possible applications of the findings to universities. The one that impressed me most was the use of a student honesty pledge. As teachers, all we have to do to increase honesty in our students is ask them to sign a pledge when they submit an assignment. This primes them about the importance of honesty and thus leads them to be more honest.

8 August 2012

Thanks to Jessica Mantei and Tshering Yangden for helpful feedback.

Ariely on objectivity and conflicts of interest

"We academics are sometimes called upon to use our knowledge as consultants and expert witnesses. Shortly after I got my first academic job, I was invited by a large law firm to be an expert witness. I knew that some of my more established colleagues provided expert testimonials as a regular side job for which they were paid handsomely (though they all insisted that they didn't do it for the money). Out of curiosity, I asked to see the transcripts of some of their old cases, and when they showed me a few I was surprised to discover how one-sided their use of the research findings was. I was also somewhat shocked to see how derogatory they were in their reports about the opinions and qualifications of the expert witnesses representing the other side - who in most cases were also respectable academics.

"Even so, I decided to try it out (not for the money, of course), and I was paid quite a bit to give my expert opinion. Very early in the case I realized that the lawyers I was working with were trying to plant ideas in my mind that would buttress their case. They did not do it forcefully or by saying that certain things would be good for their clients. Instead, they asked me to describe all the research that was relevant to the case. They suggested that some of the less favorable findings for their position might have some methodological flaws and that the research supporting their view was very important and well done. They also paid me warm compliments each time that I interpreted research in a way that was useful to them. After a few weeks, I discovered that I rather quickly adopted the viewpoint of those who were paying me. The whole experience made me doubt whether it's at all possible to be objective when one is paid for his or her opinion." (pp. 85-86)

Go to

Brian's comments to colleagues

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website