The Naked Truth

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely describes the paradoxical nature of dishonesty

Published 7 years ago on Jul 02, 2017 3 minutes Read

Creativity is clearly an important means by which we enable our own cheating, but it’s certainly not the only one. In an earlier book (The Upside of Irrationality) I described an experiment designed to measure what happens when people are upset by bad service. Briefly, Ayelet Gneezy (a professor at the University of California, San Diego) and I hired a young actor named Daniel to run some experiments for us in local coffee shops. Daniel asked coffee shop patrons to participate in a five-minute task in return for $5. When they agreed, he handed them ten sheets of paper covered with random letters and asked them to find as many identical adjacent letters as they could and circle them with a pencil. After they finished, he returned to their table, collected their sheets, handed them a small stack of bills, and told them, “Here is your $5, please count the money, sign the receipt, and leave it on the table. I’ll be back later to collect it.” Then he left to look for another participant. The key was that he gave them $9 rather than $5, and the question was how many of the participants would return the extra cash.

This was the no-annoyance condition. Another set of customers — those in the annoyance condition — experienced a slightly different Daniel. In the midst of explaining the task, he pretended that his cell phone was vibrating. He reached into his pocket, took out the phone, and said, “Hi, Mike. What’s up?” After a short pause, he would enthusiastically say, “Perfect, pizza tonight at eight thirty. My place or yours?” Then he would end his call with “Later.” The whole fake conversation took about twelve seconds.

After Daniel slipped the cell phone back into his pocket, he made no reference to the disruption and simply continued describing the task. From that point on, everything was the same as in the no-annoyance condition.

We wanted to see if the customers who had been so rudely ignored would keep the extra money as an act of revenge against Daniel. Turns out they did. In the no-annoyance condition 45% of people returned the extra money, but only 14% of those who were annoyed did so. Although we found it pretty sad that more than half the people in the no-annoyance condition cheated, it was pretty disturbing to find that the 12-second interruption provoked people in the annoyance condition to cheat much, much more.

In terms of dishonesty, I think that these results suggest that once something or someone irritates us, it becomes easier for us to justify our immoral behaviour. Our dishonesty becomes retribution, a compensatory act against whatever got our goat in the first place. We tell ourselves that we’re not doing anything wrong, we are only getting even. We might even take this rationalisation a step further and tell ourselves that we are simply restoring karma and balance to the world. Good for us, we’re crusading for justice!