Saturday, May 26, 2012

Most of Us Cheat—a Little

A recent Wall Street Journal essay* presented the author’s research into patterns of cheating by people.  He found that a few people are honest, a few people are total liars and most folks cheat a little.  Why?  “. . . the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.”

This behavioral tendency can present a challenge to maintaining a strong safety culture.  Fortunately, the author found one type of intervention that decreased the incidence of lying: “. . . reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.”  In other words, asking subjects to think about the 10 Commandments or the school honor code before starting the research task resulted in less cheating.  So did having people sign their insurance forms at the top, before reporting their annual mileage, rather than the bottom, after the fudging had already been done.  Preaching and teaching about safety culture has a role, but the focus should be on the point where safety-related decisions are made and actions occur.    

I don’t want to oversell these findings.  Most of the research involved individual college students, not professionals working in large organizations with defined processes and built-in checks and balances.  But the findings do suggest that zero tolerance for certain behaviors has its place.  As the author concludes: “. . . although it is obviously important to pay attention to flagrant misbehaviors, it is probably even more important to discourage the small and more ubiquitous forms of dishonesty . . . This is especially true given what we know about the contagious nature of cheating and the way that small transgressions can grease the psychological skids to larger ones.”


*  D. Ariely, “Why We Lie,” Wall Street Journal online (May 26, 2012). 

1 comment:

  1. On the subject of cheating, it would seem that from an evolutionary perspective that the tension between individual needs and those of the group that there must always be an imperfect match up. For the largest portion of events individuals cheat because institutions lie, and institutions can be overbearing with their power - in part - because individuals are sometimes not as trust-worthy as the institution's rules demand they be.

    Cheating to continually enjoy personal advantage (be it manager or worker) is demanding - most of us are not really up to the effort for any length of time. Guilt, another evolutionary feature reinforces us pretty reliably in this respect (sociopaths excepted).

    I believe that the work of Dekker, Reason, and others who contemplate the possibility of a Just Culture offer some hope that if both the institution and the workers acknowledge the imperfect character of their mutual needs interface that a more resilient enterprise results.

    Deming advised "drive out fear" and that was not fear of the technology unknown nearly as much as it was of an anticipated arbitrary institutional resort to moralizing and sanctions. Motives that emerged more from feelings of objectives frustrated than of an honest concession that all plans are probabilistic in nature.

    Drive out fear - cheating will become too expensive for the most part!

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