Why Do We Cheat?

“The paradox of human morality is that we are both liars and good people”

By Minaal Adnani

    Why do rational, economic agents lie and cheat? Why is it that people are more uncomfortable being dishonest when money is involved? Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and author of The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, has designed multiple unique experiments to explore our self-serving biases. His work can help us understand why all of us—even honest folk —cheat a little.

    The traditional economic theory behind decision-making involves a cost-benefit analysis in which an individual measures what they stand to gain from a particular action—even if this action is morally wrong—as well as the probability and cost of being caught. Ariely suggests otherwise (Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008). In behavioral economics—the intersection where economics meets psychology—we learn about self-concept. This is the way we view ourselves. Human beings wish to perceive themselves as loyal, honest and good folk. The Duke professor points out that cheating does the opposite; most people do not cheat a lot because they do not want to update their self-concept to include “dishonest person” to the description.

    One of his most famous experiments shows how context plays a large role in why people cheat. Ariely presented a sheet of twenty math problems to 141 Carnegie Mellon students. They were given five minutes to answer as many questions as they could, and they would receive $1 for each correct answer. The two conditions included a control group and a shredder group (in which participants shredded their answer sheet).

    Students in the control group had to submit their answers to the experimenter who would count up the number of correct answers and award them the cash. However, shredder group participants were asked to count up their correct answers, report this to the experimenter, and then shred their answer sheet. This provided the perfect opportunity to add a few extra “right” answers to their total score for a few extra dollars.

    Ariely’s findings showed that participants in the control condition solved 32.6 questions, while those in the shredder condition solved 35.9 questions (Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008).

    In a variation of this same experiment, Ariely had participants shred their answer sheets in the same way as the shredder group. But, instead of reporting correct answers and asking for dollars in return, subjects asked for tokens that were exchanged for money later. What happened to the likelihood of cheating in this experiment? Dishonesty doubled. When lying is “one step removed from money,” people find it easier to cheat (“The ‘Truth’ About Why We Lie, Cheat And Steal”, 2012). This allows people to overcome their moral impediments and cheat whilst maintaining the idea that they are a good person.

    Ariely’s results are robust and show how psychology plays a large role in our decision making. People are dishonest when they have the opportunity to, as in the shredder group condition where they cheat since the experimenter does not check their answer sheet. Ariely posits that this is called “our buggy moral code” (Ariely, 2009). Since society values virtues such as honesty and trust so much, individuals who want to get away with being dishonest do so in a limited manner, which makes self-concept maintenance easier for them.



Nina Mazar, On Amir, Dan Ariely (2008) The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research: December 2008, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 633-644.
The ‘Truth’ About Why We Lie, Cheat And Steal. (2012, June 4). Retrieved July 28, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2012/06/04/154287476/honest-truth-about-why-we-lie-cheat-and-steal
Ariely, D. (2009). Our buggy moral code. Speech presented at TED Talks.
Picture: https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2011/12/05/pencil-answer-sheet_wide-017c57f50d2b64c1cdb8eafe1746243fe9bb8549.jpg?s=1400