Why people think it's OK to cheat a little bit

I've been having a lot of fun writing for CreditBloggers. My most recent entry is about Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely's recent TED talk about his experiments to learn more about the psychology of cheating.

Ariely decided to conduct a series of experiments to understand cheating. He gave test subjects a math quiz with 20 problems, and promised to give a dollar for each correct answer. The problems weren't hard to solve, but Ariely imposed a five-minute time limit, making it impossible for anyone to complete the test. After five minutes, Ariely collected the test from the volunteers, scored them, and paid them for their correct answers. On average, volunters solved four questions correctly.

Next, he tempted people to cheat. He told a new group of test takers to score their own tests and tell Ariely how many questions they got correct. These volunteers reported, on average, that they solved seven questions. The interesting thing about this, says Ariely, was that the higher average wasn't because a few people cheated a lot; rather, it was because a lot of people cheated a little. Equally interesting was the fact that the amount of cheating didn't change when the reward for a correct question was increased or decreased; nor did it change when the chances of being caught cheating were increased or decreased.

Dan Ariely: Why people think it's OK to cheat a little bit

Here are my other posts:

Consumer Sentiment on the Rise (for now)

Afflicted with Allelomimesis -- Why People Behave as if They’re Broke When They’re Not

Half-empty supermarket shelves act like consumer magnets

Bringing Your Kids to the Supermarket is Hazardous to Your Wallet

The Allure of the "Near-Miss"


  1. I’ve never cheated even a little; I’m saving all my cheating up for one big score. You gotta be prepared.

  2. Hey, sometimes ya gotta. Case in point: my car’s registration tags. There was an issue with the insurance company. I got that cleared up, I paid my registration and everything. They sent me a notice that it’s all good now, but they didn’t send me tags! I went to the DMV. “We can’t fix that here- go online or call this number.” I tried both. Sent several emails. Tried calling. You can’t talk to a human at the DMV, and the robot hangs up on you!
    When I can afford it I’ll get the car smogged and go pay for next year, and get my 2010 tags. Meanwhile, I’m borrowing the tag off a motorcyle that isn’t being used. Yeah, that’s cheating (quite illegal), but I paid.

  3. Far too often in life, the rules unfair and/or outright stupid. Civil disobedience = cheating for a cause.

  4. Yeah, even the “cause” of getting 3 extra questions right on a meaningless math test. Go humanity.

  5. This guy is a bit of alright. Wasn’t he part of an episode of “This American Life?” I recall him saying just a bit more of this story…

  6. In a way, it’s a positive message — people still want to maintain a certain degree of morality so they can live with themselves, meaning most people have self-control. Maybe that’s a little “glass half full” thinking, but somehow it makes me happy. :-)

  7. I’m thinking that the cheating (or any sort of getting ahead tactic) didn’t change, whether the reward was greater or lesser and with the threat of being caught, because people like to feel like everyone else thinks that they are “doing well”, are smart, etc. If they can make you think that they are ahead of the curve, or somehow special, then they will be. We rely heavily on the opinions of others, in order to identify with, or even just like ourselves. I don’t know that we, though I know that there are many who can, will ever be able to “just be”. We aren’t wired that way. I don’t know that there is any living thing that is to some extent…?

  8. I like him. He took a potentially devastating life altering experience and turned it into something to better the course of humanity.

  9. Some people would risk their job by lying on their mileage reports. They were essentially risking everything for an extra $500 a year.

  10. people like to feel like everyone else thinks that they are “doing well”

    So what they should do is reverse the test. Tell them (at the end of the five minutes) that they will get a dollar for every wrong answer. Then get them to mark their own answers. result = greed – pride

  11. Maybe it’s about believability? If they honestly got 4 questions right, maybe pretending to get 20 would just be too audacious. Or rationalization: “These of the questions I should have or would have gotten right, even if I didn’t actually write down the technically 100% correct answer…”

  12. The amount of cheating didn’t change when the chances of being caught were changed. What were the penalty for being caught cheating? Nothing? The entire payment? A $20 fine?

  13. I think cheating has something to do with culture. Corruption is more of a problem in some countries than others. Different groups within a country also have different ethical standards. If lots of people cheat, you are likely to cheat. If everyone follows the rules, you follow the rules.

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