The honest truth about why we cheat for others
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.