We all cheat. But not a lot.

Given the chance, we cheat, all of us, possibly even the Pope. But, according to a leading academic, there are limits, we don’t cheat a lot, just enough, because we can get away with it.

My holiday reading on what now seems a long-ago trip to Canada was Dan Ariely’s latest social science offering ‘The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty – How we Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves’  After a serious amount of research, Dan, Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University, North Carolina, had to sadly conclude that ever since Adam took that first bite of the forbidden fruit, the human race has been dishonest. Noooooo, Adam told God, I didn’t eat from the tree you told me not to touch, well OK I did, but that there Eve woman, it was her fault… Now look where we are.

Dan carried out a number of experiments, asking volunteers to complete simple maths tests, they’d get paid for each right answer. Some were told to shred their answer papers, then report to the payer-of-right-answers who would have no other choice than to trust them when they declared they’d somehow managed to score above the average of those who hadn’t shredded their papers. Who could have predicted that, eh?

He carried out variations on that approach, with some fascinating conclusions, including that we are sometimes altruistically dishonest because we want to help people, little white lies and all that, so we’re not completely doomed to the fires of hell. Interestingly it seems we have an inbuilt dishonestyometer, we will only go so far with our cheating, not fundamentally because we think we’ll get caught, though that is a factor, but because cheating does have its limits, for most of us anyway.

One factor in curbing cheating was to get those taking part in the tests to sign a declaration at the beginning to say they’d not cheat. And they didn’t. An even more interesting one was to give them a religious reference beforehand, such as reading the ten commandments and guess what, even those who had no religion at all didn’t cheat.

Dan tried to persuade a couple of companies, including the taxman, to redesign their forms so people made a declaration of truth at the beginning of their claim or tax return. He had evidence to show they could save a fortune, but they weren’t interested.

It was a fascinating if disheartening read. I kind of hoped that cheating and dishonesty were restricted to the few, not the majority. Dan doesn’t want to end his book on a downer, he points out that actually, given all the opportunities we have each day, we don’t cheat nearly as much as we could, so there is hope. Well, that’s a relief, then.

A good old honest mountain, just off the Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada..
A good old honest mountain, just off the Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada..

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