Lying and Economists

Heard behavioral economist Dan Ariely on the radio the other day. He was discussing economic research into when people cheat. In his study, they gave people 5 minutes to do some math problems and then gave them a dollar for each one they got right. The subjects would score themselves and then shred their worksheet, so they could claim more correct than they actually got without fear of being caught.

Except… the experimenters had rigged the shredder so that it would only shred the sides of the paper, so they would keep the true results, unbeknownst to the subjects. They found that on average people cheated about two dollars.

Ariely’s work is interesting, and he was able to get some intriguing results on what happened if you varied conditions slightly (e.g. introducing an intermediate step of being paid in a token makes people more likely to cheat), but he and the interviewer seemed blind to the irony – that they were lying to people in a study to find out why people lie. When presidents, CEOs and their apologists lie and cheat as a matter of course, is it any wonder if ordinary people do the same?

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One Response to “Lying and Economists”

  1. Chris Farrell Says:

    I heard of a very similar study (sorry, can’t find the link right now) where they did the same thing – including the shredder – but did it entirely statistically, which meant they didn’t need to verify the results and so no cheating was required by the researchers :). You do the math problems, then the researchers vary the parameters, and see how the number of reported results change. If you increase the stakes ($2 instead of $1 per answer for example), introduce a clear cheater into the mix, etc., it has a statistically significant effect on how many right answers people report.

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