Social Scientists Explore Ways to Save Us From Our Own Decisions

We don’t make sense. Our reasons for doing what we do, for choosing what we choose, frequently fail to add up. We are more dishonest and less logical than we imagine. And psychologists and economists seemingly never tire of pointing this out to us.

So can anything be done? Or are we hopeless?

In search of an answer, I attended a special session on choices at the Association for Psychological Science’s recent annual convention, which boasted some of the biggest names in social science at the moment. Among them was Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, author of two best-selling books, and a prolific researcher with a winningly dry wit. You don’t want to follow his presentation.

In the past few years, Mr. Ariely has shown that people who believe they’re honest are still perfectly willing to behave unethically when it suits them and when they think they can get away with it. For instance, in one study, participants were asked to complete a set of simple math puzzles in a limited amount of time (like finding two numbers in a matrix that together equal 10). They were given a small reward, like 50 cents or $2, for each completed puzzle. The more puzzles they completed, the more money they received.

In the experiment, participants whose results had to be verified by an experimenter completed significantly fewer puzzles than those who were allowed to report their own results and collect the cash. From that, Mr. Ariely concludes, when people saw a chance to cheat, they took it. They didn’t cheat a lot, but enough to be noticeable. And other research he’s done indicates that this same kind of minor corruption pops up on tax returns and expense reports. People who cheat in the lab probably cheat in the real world, too.

But there may be an easy solution: When Mr. Ariely set up the same type of experiment but first reminded people of the university’s honor code or asked them to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember, the cheating was eliminated. Gone. Nothing about the situation was different; the subjects could cheat without consequences if they so desired. But a simple reminder ahead of time that cheating is not OK was enough to keep people honest.

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