Want Help Promoting Honesty? Keep It Simple

Decisions on moral conduct have influenced humanity since Adam and Eve. A new Canadian study provides the practical advice that the easiest answer is usually the most honest.

If you want to promote honesty and honest answers, make it as easy as possible for others to complete the task you’ve given them.

Investigators discovered that we’re more likely to do the right thing in situations of moral conflict when it requires little to no effort.

For example, if our income information is automatically entered into our tax return, we may be less likely to alter it to something that is incorrect once it’s already there. That would require more effort and possibly explanation.

On the other hand, a passive response can promote cheating. When faced with a blank return, we may conveniently “forget” to fill in those bothersome boxes for things like extra money made on investments, which might push our taxes higher.

“We don’t think there is one solution for all situations in which you are tempted to be dishonest, but we definitely know from prior research that people tend to accept the status quo,” said researcher Dr. Nina Mazar, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto.

Mazar co-wrote the study with Rotman colleague Dr. Scott Hawkins, also an associate professor of marketing. The paper appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

For the study, researchers ran an experiment to gauge how people would behave under different choice scenarios where there was a financial gain attached to their answers.

Participants cheated most when it meant passively ignoring an incorrect answer with higher financial value that had been automatically generated for them, rather than actively creating the dishonest response themselves.

On the other hand, cheating was virtually eliminated when the scenario was set up so that participants were automatically given the honest response and had to override it if they wanted to give a different answer that carried a bigger financial gain.

Researchers believe some participants struggled with the moral dilemma as those who cheated had slower reaction times than those who did not.

Previous studies have shown that default options can encourage compliance with public policy goals, such as promoting higher rates of organ donation. The results of this study build upon these prior observations.

Investigators believe their findings can have implications for a variety of self-report situations, including insurance applications and claim forms, as well as tax returns.

That is, more people may comply with tax reporting rules if their reporting mechanisms — such as tax preparation software — require a response even in cases where individuals don’t have anything to report (i.e., requiring to type in “$0” rather than leaving the field blank) or pre-fill key fields with available information.

Source: University of Toronto/EurekAlert