Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

What Keeps People Honest?

If you don’t want people to cheat, remind them of why they are not supposed to (for example, make them write down the 10 commandments before).

From the University of Toronto magazine, winter2011:

What Keeps People Honest?

We seem to balance a desire for personal gain against a desire to see ourselves as basically good

The economic human – perfectly rational, perfectly informed and perfectly self-interested – is a useful fiction for studying how economies work. Our behaviour is rational, informed and self-interested enough that economic models based on those assumptions work pretty well.

But not perfectly. People make decisions for all sorts of reasons, including social and emotional ones. Some of the most interesting advances in economics are in a field called behavioural economics, which looks more closely at the psychology of actual humans making actual economic decisions. Inspired by fear, fairness, social pressure, and other not-entirely-rational factors, real people make decisions that economic humans would simply not understand.

Nina Mazar, a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management, is especially interested in dishonesty. Her work examines a seeming paradox – people cheat more than they would if they were strictly moral beings, but not nearly as much as if they were strictly economic ones.

In one study by Mazar, people were offered 50 cents for each arithmetic question they answered correctly. Given the chance to cheat (by reporting their own scores rather than handing in their papers) most goosed their scores by a few points. But almost no one cheated to the maximum level possible, even when they knew they wouldn’t be caught.

Mazar says that people seem to balance their desire for personal gain against their desire to continue to see themselves as basically good. They cheat as much as they can without being forced to revise their self-image as honest people. “You can be a little bit dishonest and benefit a little bit from these temptations, but you don’t have to change your view of yourself,” she says.

But in the same study, if she asked subjects to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember before completing the task, cheating disappeared. The same held true if she asked them to sign an honour code. Mazar says that simply calling people’s attention to their own standards – to their image of themselves as honest – helps reduce cheating.

Mazar has talked to the Canadian Revenue Agency about her research, which could lead to tax forms that are designed to minimize cheating. Eventually, she thinks, businesses might use insights from the work to deter employee and customer theft. But she warns that it’s still not clear how insights from the lab stand up in the real world. “The world outside is much more complex than the lab,” she says.
– Kurt Kleiner

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February 11, 2011 - Posted by | behaviour | ,

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