The economy of moral dishonesty: can we cheat for the greater good

What does it mean to be honest? Can people act dishonestly, while still thinking that they are being honest?

I have recently read John Carreyrou book ‘Bad Blood’, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a blood testing company Theranos and its CEO Elisabeth Holmes. The book got me thinking- how is it possible for a person to go down a rabbit hole so far and be seemingly oblivious to all criticisms around them. In a society that is driven by capitalism, like much of the world today, the default answer is greed – money and personal gain, that is what drives the dishonesty. It is the calculation of how much can a person potentially gain relative to the risk of punishment they will receive. However, it will surprise no one, if I say that human behaviour is usually much more complicated than the simplistic economic decisions between gains and losses can account for. In a recent documentary about the Theranos case, economist Dan Ariely has suggested that, when it comes to cheating and lies, a person’s internal self-perceived honesty may be just as important. Ariely suggests, that, as long as the cheating behaviour does not harm a person’s self-view of their honesty, there is enough wiggle room for ‘honest’ people to behave dishonestly.

In his research, Ariely has used simple paper-and-pencil tasks to illustrate the importance of self-perceived honesty in the cheating behaviour. In a study published more than 10 years ago, participants were asked to solve either simple mathematical or multiple choice question problems, for which, if solved correctly, they would receive monetary rewards. In one such experiment, the participants were asked to either report the number of correct answers themselves (so called recycle group) or give the answer sheet to the experimenter who would calculate the number of correct answers for them (control group). The average number of correctly answered questions was always significantly higher in a group that reported the answers themselves as compared to the group for which the answers where calculated by the examiner, suggesting that some self-reporting people were being dishonest with the results they provided. Interestingly, if before the task was performed the participants were reminded of some kind of a moral code (e.g. participants had to write down the Ten Commandments or sign an honesty code), the number of self-reported correct answers dropped to the level of the control group, indicating that people care about their own moral perception of honesty.

In the recent documentary Ariel also describes a slightly different (dis)honesty study, which essentially asks- will you cheat for the greater good? The study participants were given a dice and told to decide before they roll it by which number- the one on the top of the dice or on the bottom, did they want to be payed by. The experimenter in the test group did not know which side the participant has chosen, so the question was- will the participants cheat and change their mind if they saw that after the roll of the dice the side which they have not chosen had the larger number. Just based on the previous studies one could have predicted that the group, which did not have to report the side of the dice they chose, tended to earn more money because they were more likely to cheat. The cheating behaviour in the die toss study was detected not only by the “sudden luck” of the no-report group, but also using a lie detector, which can sense the fact that people know they are lying through the changes their skin conductivity. But what would happen, if people were told that the money they earn during the experiment goes not into their own pockets but is donated to a charity. Will people lie more or less if they think that they are doing it for a good cause? It turns out, that people not only lie more but mentally they also perceive the lie to be a lesser lie, so much less in fact, that the lie detector can no longer even detect it.

People who think highly of themselves in terms of honesty make use of various mechanisms that allow them to engage in a limited amount of dishonesty while retaining positive views of themselves. Maraz et al. (2015)

It is difficult or even impossible to know if cases such as Theranos could be to some extent explained by this moral dishonesty phenomena. In his book John Carreyrou points out that Elisabeth’s key childhood lesson was: “… that if she wanted to truly leave her mark on the world, she would need to accomplish something that furthered the greater good, not just become rich”. Perhaps Elisabeth really believed that her vision for more accessible healthcare was an honourable cause for the greater good and, as long as she was perceiving that she was moving towards that vision, the means by which she was doing so did not matter.

Moral dishonesty should not be used as an excuse to cheat or lie, after all, it is nothing else but a self-delusion that we are all susceptible to. It is important to recognise our own weaknesses because moral dishonesty is more abundant is our society today than ever. In the UK the ‘tax gap’ (the difference in the estimated tax value that should be paid to the revenue & customs service versus what is actually paid) was 33£ billion in 2017- quite likely some of the people who do not pay their fair-share of taxes would argue that they have more socially and morally valuable places to spend their money on. I really like Rutger Bregman’s views on this (see here), and agree that these days too often philanthropy is used as a moral argument for tax evasion.

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