Harvard Business review just published a short description of some research that Nina Mazar, On Amir, and I carried out over the past few years as part of their “Breakthrough Ideas for 2008,” and who am I to challenge this categorization?
The academic paper describing these findings in more detail will come out in the Journal of Marketing Research sometime in the near future, but in the meantime, here is the short version of it.
In general, the results point to a few interesting aspects of human nature. One is that most of us, when tempted, are willing to be a little dishonest, regardless of the risks. Another is that even when we have no chance of getting caught, we still don’t become wild liars-our conscience imposes some limits. Finally (and what I find most disturbing), it’s clear that we have an incredible ability to rationalize our dishonesty and that justifying it becomes substantially easier when cheating is one step removed from cash. Nonmonetary exchanges allow people greater psychological latitude to cheat-leading to crimes that go well beyond pilfered pens to backdated stock options, falsified financial reports, and crony deals. Such latitude is the force behind the Enrons of the world.