Saturday, August 08, 2009

Long Range: Ariely on cheating

I'll summarise the main points of Dan Ariely's talk on cheating here. If anyone want to dig into this a little bit deeper, let's hit the comments.

Ariely's saying that people like to think of themselves as a 'good' person ("They like to be able to look themselves in the mirror"). But effectively what that means is that people can cheat a little bit as long as it doesn't change their image of themselves.

That means that the amount a person cheats is NOT affected by:
  • how much they can potentially earn through cheating
  • discovering there's a reduced probability that they'll get caught
Neither of these has an effect on a person's mental image of themselves.

But you can increase the likelihood that they'll cheat through two simple methods:
  • make what they're cheating or stealing more abstract or symbolic; the less it initially feels like tangible money or valuable goods, the easier it is to cheat or steal it
  • be part of a group where it's socially acceptable to cheat
The conclusion Ariely draws here is that the stock-market (*) is a prime target for this sort of cheating as it's filled with items of value that don't feel like money, and is run by a group that has suffered from people committing spectacular fraud. There's a short article expanding on this talk, here, where Ariely discusses the Bernie Madoff financial scam. He speculates that some members of the financial industry, "now that they have been exposed to this extreme level of dishonesty, might adopt slightly lower moral scruples."

(*) Well, the stock-market or a corporation's profits.

I also found this interesting: You can decrease our inclination to cheat / improve our morality simply by making us think about moral things (the 10 Commandments, the Honour code). You don't have to believe in this things for it to have an effect - one of Ariely's experiments showed a statistically significant decrease in cheating (like, no cheating) when atheists swore on the Bible.

One other item of note for this series on long range thinking. Ariely claims that people (tend to) feel that their intuition about things is right. That would mean that it's difficult to motivate yourself to test whether your intuitions or theories about how the world works are actually correct.

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