What’s in a name.

December 29, 2012 BY danariely

Runners run, teachers teach, and cheaters cheat. It’s all there in the name, right? Despite the obvious logic, one could argue that even those who aren’t “runners” per se do, on occasion, run (even if it’s just across a busy street), and that we all occasionally teach our kids or friends something they didn’t know before. So what about cheaters?


I’ve written at (book) length about how all of us lie and cheat a little. Sometimes we’re unaware of it, as is the case when we have a conflict of interest or begin believing exaggerated versions of our own stories, and sometimes we’re not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever kept extra change after buying something or told someone you were busy when you weren’t. Exactly. So how does identity (whether it’s “liars” who do these kinds of things or just people who occasionally lie) play into cheating? If someone insinuated that you were a cheater before you even had the chance to bend the rules, would it make you cheat more, less, or the same?


A new experiment shows that unlike the swimming swimmers and baking bakers, would-be “cheaters” actually cheat less. In a series of three experiments, participants were given a chance to claim unearned money at the expense of the researchers.  There were two conditions in each experiment, and the only difference between them was in the wording of the instructions. In the first condition participants were told that researchers were interested in “how common cheating is on college campuses,” while in the second, they wondered “how common cheaters are on college campuses.”


This is a subtle but, as it turned out, significant difference. Participants in the “cheating” condition claimed significantly more cash than those in the “cheater” condition, who, similar to when we tempted people who had sworn on the bible, did not cheat at all. This was true in both face-to-face and online interactions, indicating that relative anonymity cannot displace the implications of self-identifying as a cheater.  People may allow themselves to cheat sometimes, but not if it involves identifying themselves as Cheaters.


It’s an interesting twist in the complex tapestry of cheating behavior, and I think it could be a useful means of curbing dishonesty; maybe beginning tax documents with a warning that “liars will be prosecuted” would help keep people from lying on their tax returns. Or maybe I’ll try having students recite the old cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater rhyme before tests… although “pumpkin eater” may not be much of an affront to the post-kindergarten set.