The honest truth about why we cheat for others

June 8, 2012

Excerpted from the author’s new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone – especially ourselves. (Harper 2012)

A few years ago, in one of my graduate classes, I lectured about some of my research related to conflicts of interest. After class, a student (I’ll call her Jennifer) told me that the discussion had struck a chord with her. It reminded her of an incident that had taken place a few years earlier, when she was working as a certified public accountant for a large accounting firm.

Jennifer told me that her job had been to produce the annual reports, proxy statements, and other documents that would inform shareholders of the state of their companies’ affairs. One day her boss asked her to have her team prepare a report for the annual shareholders’ meeting of one of their larger clients. The task involved going over all of the client’s financial statements and determining the company’s financial standing. She did her best to prepare the report as accurately as possible, without, for example, overclaiming the company’s profits or delaying reporting any losses to the next accounting year.

Later that day, Jennifer got the report back with a note from her boss. It read, “I don’t like these numbers. Please gather your team and get me a revised version by next Wednesday.”

After deliberating for a while, she concluded that she and her team should comply with his request; after all, he was her boss, and he certainly knew a lot more than she did about accounting, how to work with clients, and the client’s expectations. In the end, although Jennifer started the process with every intention of being as accurate as possible, she wound up going back to the drawing board, reviewing the statements, reworking the numbers, and returning with a “better” report. That time, her boss was satisfied.

After Jennifer told me her story, I thought about her work environment and the effect that working on a team with her boss and teammates had on her decision to push the accounting envelope a bit further. Jennifer was certainly in the kind of situation that people frequently face in the workplace, but what really stood out for me was that in this case the cheating took place in the context of a team, which was different from anything we had studied before.

In all of our earlier experiments on cheating, one person alone made the decision to cheat (even if he or she was spurred along by a dishonest act of another person). But in Jennifer’s case, more than one person was directly involved, as is frequently the case in professional settings. In fact, it was clear to Jennifer that in addition to herself and her boss, her teammates would be affected by her actions. At the end of the year, the whole team would be evaluated together as a group – and their bonuses, raises, and future prospects were entwined.

I started to wonder about the effects of collaboration on individual honesty. When we are part of a group, are we tempted to cheat more? Less? In other words, is a group setting conducive or destructive to honesty? This question is related to whether it’s possible that people can “catch” cheating from one another. But social contagion and social dependency are different. It’s one thing to observe dishonest behavior in others and, based on that, alter our perceptions of what acceptable social norms are; it’s quite another if the financial welfare of others depends on us.

In pondering Jennifer’s situation, Francesca Gino, Shahar Ayal, and I began to wonder how dishonesty operates in collaborative environments. Does monitoring help to reduce cheating? Do social connections in groups increase both altruism and dishonesty? And if both of these forces exert their influence in opposite directions, which of the two is more powerful? In order to shed light on this question, we turned to some experiments.

In our initial experiments, both the cheater and his or her partner benefited from every additional exaggeration of their performance score. So if you were the cheater in the experiment and you exaggerated the number of your correct responses by one, you would get half of the additional payment and your partner would get the same. This is certainly less financially rewarding than snagging the whole amount for yourself, but you would still benefit from your exaggeration to some degree.

To look into purely altruistic cheating, we introduced a condition in which the fruit of one participant’s cheating would benefit only the partner. What did we find? As it turns out, altruism is indeed a strong motivator for cheating. When cheating was carried out for purely altruistic reasons and the cheaters themselves did not gain anything from their act, overclaiming increased to an even larger degree.

Why might this be the case? I think that when both we and another person stand to benefit from our dishonesty, we operate out of a mix of selfish and altruistic motives. In contrast, when other people, and only other people, stand to benefit from our cheating, we find it far easier to rationalize our bad behavior in purely altruistic ways and subsequently lose more of our moral inhibitions. After all, if we are doing something for the pure benefit of others, aren’t we indeed a little bit like Robin Hood?

Of course, we cannot survive without the help of others. Working together is a crucial element of our lives. But clearly, collaboration is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it increases enjoyment, loyalty, and motivation. On the other hand, it carries with it the increased potential for cheating. In the end – and very sadly – it may be that the people who care about their coworkers end up cheating more. Of course, I am not advocating that we stop working in groups, stop collaborating, or stop caring about one another. But we do need to recognize the potential costs of collaboration and increased affinity.

If collaboration increases dishonesty, what can we do about it? One obvious answer is to increase monitoring. In fact, this seems to be the default response of the government’s regulators to every instance of corporate misconduct. For example, the Enron fiasco brought about a large set of reporting regulations known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the financial crisis of 2008 ushered in an even larger set of regulations (largely emerging from the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), which were designed to regulate and increase the supervision of the financial industry.

To some degree, there is no question that monitoring can be helpful, but it is also clear from our results that increased monitoring alone is unlikely to completely overcome our ability to justify our own dishonesty – particularly when others stand to gain from our misbehavior (not to mention the high financial costs of compliance with such regulations).

In some cases, instead of adding layers and layers of rules and regulations, perhaps we could set our sights on changing the nature of group-based collaboration.

Clearly, there are no silver bullets for the complex issue of cheating in group settings. Taken together, I think that our findings have serious implications for organizations, especially considering the predominance of collaborative work in our day-to-day professional lives. There is also no question that better understanding the extent and complexity of dishonesty in social settings is rather depressing. Still, by understanding the possible pitfalls involved in collaboration, we can take some steps toward rectifying dishonest behavior.


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The experiments are certainly interesting (and perhaps reflect the old adage of “honour amongst thieves” who scratch each others’ backs). However, the original situation seems far more clear cut: whether the group is intrinsically more or less inclined to dishonesty seems almost irrelevant: a group is more easily manipulated.

indeed, I can think of no reason for the employees in question to be appraised as a group (if that is indeed the case; it’s not something I saw during my time in business), other than to facilitate manipulation. It’s less gory than the old Roman punishment of decimation, but done with the same purpose and the same effect. If you want to regulate anything, regulate that.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Excellent article, observations and conclusions.

I would ask each to take these concepts and apply them to two systems that affect each and every one of us every day. These are our political and legal systems.

With each election the percentage of those in or “out of” our legal system occupy a greater percentage of our elective offices. Is it any surprise that actions and inactions of such elected officials tend, over time. to favor the interests of the legal profession over those of “we, the [other] people” when such interests conflict?

It never ceases to amaze me that NO ONE has ever effectively challenged the fact that “our” Supreme Court Justices have unilaterally thrown off the yoke of public accountability. Only in the last century have our judiciary at the federal, state and local levels made public decisions which render the very oaths of office mandatory by statute before assuming the robes of office (and exercising associated power) meaningless.

They have proclaimed themselves immune from prosecution for incompetence AND corruption. They may misinterpret the law and/or misuse the law, whether inadvertent or through conscious intent and impunity. NO ONE to date has challenged their right to do this. NO ONE has complained of the obvious conflict between the interest(s) of the judiciary and the public interest they are sworn to uphold and protect. It is the effective “law of the land” today that so long as any action by any judge can be in the slightest construed as having been done “in the course of their official duties”, they are wholly and entirely unaccountable to anyone anywhere for any moral or financial damage they do.

The most fundamental basis of our legal system is that each of us must have a remedy for injustice done. What is that remedy when there is but a single jurisdiction in which a given probate must be filed, when the judge in charge consciously refuses to do his/her duty under the various laws clearly applicable, and when he/she cannot be held legally or financially responsible for such damages as result?

As this article explains so well, judges are much more likely to act to protect other judges than to act to apply the law uniformly and clearly. Everyone is familiar with the judicial presumption that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, and yet if a law is genuinely unclear does not “justice” demand that each decision each time it is examined in court make it MORE clear and not LESS clear?

When the words so carefully chosen and enacted by our elected representatives mean ONLY “what a judge says they mean”, such meaning is no longer sufficiently clear as to have a predictable “outcome” when brought before a court of competent jurisdiction. A law that is not predictable is useless as guidance, but it is fertile ground for the ever-increasing number of lawyers that infest and weaken our our society like termites and personally and collectively profit from such professional malfeasance. They even argue as to whether such is “malfeasance” or “misfeasance”, as if the result is different.

I live where the “word” was out (impossible to prove, of course) not to come into court with an attorney from “outside” if you wanted any hope of a favorable decision. This means, of course, that “justice” is no longer what adopted law requires. No attorney dare argue the meaning of any law on the books if such would result in an outcome the judge in charge does not want. Wherever and whenever the “rule of law” is replaced by a “rule of men”, such unrestrained power will corrupt both inevitably and absolutely.

Increasingly the judiciary of our society no longer concerns itself with truth and justice, such as who did what FIRST. These things lurk deep in the details that take time to present and consider. The easy way, all too common, is to look for and make decisions based on procedural error such as arbitrary statutes of limitation or the words of description in a complaint such that obvious and wrongful acts are ultimately unpunished or even rewarded. What kind of a “message” does THAT send to our children? Is THAT to be our legacy to them?

For approaching ten years as an estate executor and heir I have yet to have access to a jury of my peers. I have yet to gain access to a judge untainted by the influence of a local bank that has repeatedly and consistently violated their fiduciary duties as a Guardian?

For me, “the law(s)”, “remedy”, an “impartial court”, and “jury of one’s peers” have proven but illusions without substance, goals to date unachievable with far more dedication and financial assets than the average citizen can or will bring to bear.

Such malignancy as the author has so well speculated about may well already be terminal to the society our forefathers sought to create. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, I can only conclude that America has proven to be asleep at the wheel.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

A very thought provoking post OneOfTheSheep.

Posted by Gillyp | Report as abusive

What you should look at is systems where I cheat entirely for your benefit, and you cheat entirely for mine. Like could this seem in any way like the big four accountancy firms?

When we cheat on behalf of others we don’t have the same guilt issues, which is what limits our cheating.

This is also disippated in a group. Look at SS soldiers in the holocaust, what were at the beginning ordinary young men could find it in themselves to commit acts of the worst barbarity. Being part of the group was an essential part of this. We have a great need to be accepted by the group and initiation, like fiddling a clients report, or some act of cruelty, is very much a part of spreading the guilt amongst us all in corrupt organisations.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

its simply a natural human need for contentment in some, the more they get, the more they want, to fill a never filled emptyness, selfness ?

Posted by running | Report as abusive

Interesting topic, but I don’t agree that altruism is the sole reason as to why people will still cheat even if they don’t benefit from the cheat. I think that it just because the benefit they get is somewhat intangible, the cheat might benefit the cheater emotionally, psychologically, or socially instead of physically. Looking at the example the author provided, even if Jennifer will not get any extra bonuses or raises because she did a good job by redoing her report, she might still do it solely because the respect and praise she will receive from her team by bring them extra bonuses and raises. Also, check out “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. In chapter one of the book, the authors wrote about why and what’s the incentive for teachers and sumo wrestlers cheat, which I believe is a counter-example to cheats are done because of altruistic motive.

Posted by AaronX.Situ | Report as abusive

Cheating can be conscious our subtle…individual or group, when people look the other way, sometimes for self protection or to avoid having to do something about it. The general populace who lived near the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, spouses married to someone who abuses their child(ren), those living where drugs are sold blatantly, people who witness a crime, government whistle blowers, or even cheating in class. Self preservation is a powerful motive; so is deferring accountability, and both are readily rationalized.[everyone is doing it, or I was told to.] THat said, is not an excuse. Keep in mind cheating of any kind will bounce back and hit you, and guilt ruins the enjoyment of life, if you have a conscience.

Posted by Albuquerque | Report as abusive