Dan Ariely is a James B Duke professor, which at Duke University is a big deal. He has PhD degrees in cognitive psychology and business administration and works as a behavioral economist. And he is the head of an important research lab.
But he is not your typical dry professor. That lab, for example, he has named the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and he has published three books that page for page are as delightful and informative as science comes these days and this latest work, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty is I think his best.
He got interested in studying honesty when he heard about a young man who worked as a stock boy at the Kennedy Center gift shops. They were run by some 300 volunteers, mostly retirees.
The gift shops were run like lemonade stands. There were no cash registers, just cash boxes into which the volunteers deposited cash and from which they made change. The gift shops did a roaring business, selling more than $400,000 worth of merchandise a year. But they had one big problem: of that amount, about $150,000 disappeared each year.
The young man eventually was promoted to manager and he decided he had to find out who was stealing all that money. So he and the U S National Park Service detectives set a trap and caught a thief. But he had taken only $60. Further investigation showed that the money wasn't being taken by one single thief but by many of the elderly volunteers.
The moral of this story is anything but uplifting. As [the manager] puts it, "We are going to take things from each other if we have a chance . . . many people need controls around them for them to do the right thing."
Ariely and his collaborators set up dozens of experiments in universities from MIT to Stanford and through a series of clever tests determined that indeed, almost everybody cheats if they can do it without being detected. But almost nobody cheats a lot. The students in his experiments claimed to have answered one or two more questions correctly than they actually did. But seldom more than that. Apparently we need to be able to continue to tell ourselves that we aren't really cheating at all.
The other conclusions Ariely and his teams come to are equally interesting and lead to some recommendations that might help to keep everybody from politicians and dentists to students and office workers more honest.
2012 No 100