Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The results suggest that people low in moral character are likely to eventually dominate cheating-enabling environments, where they then cheat extensively

Selection effects on dishonest behavior. Petr Houdek   Štěpán Bahník   Marek Hudík   Marek Vranka. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 16, No. 2, March 2021, pp. 238-266.

Abstract: In many situations people behave ethically, while elsewhere dishonesty reigns. Studies of the determinants of unethical behavior often use random assignment of participants in various conditions to identify contextual or psychological factors influencing dishonesty. However, in many real-world contexts, people deliberately choose or avoid specific environments. In three experiments (total N = 2,124) enabling self-selection of participants in two similar tasks, one of which allowed for cheating, we found that participants who chose the task where they could lie for financial gain reported a higher number of correct predictions than those who were assigned it at random. Introduction of financial costs for entering the cheating-allowing task led to a decrease in interest in the task; however, it also led to more intense cheating. An intervention aimed to discourage participants from choosing the cheating-enabling environment based on social norm information did not have the expected effect; on the contrary, it backfired. In summary, the results suggest that people low in moral character are likely to eventually dominate cheating-enabling environments, where they then cheat extensively. Interventions trying to limit the preference of this environment may not have the expected effect as they could lead to the selection of the worst fraudsters.

Keywords: cheating, self-selection, behavioral ethics, honesty-humility

5  General discussion

People choose different situations based on their personality and preferences. In the case of cheating, the moral character of individuals affects the situation selection (Cohen & Morse, 2014). Moral or guilt-prone people are ready to stop behavior that could harm others and even sacrifice financial reward to do so. On the other hand, unscrupulous people seek such situations (Wiltermuth & Cohen, 2014). Accordingly, we found that participants low in honesty-humility tend to prefer cheating-enabling environments, where their rate of cheating can further escalate.

Based on our results, we recommend enriching the experimental methodology by including the possibility of selection of conditions by participants. Experimental designs typically involve measurement of behavior in assigned conditions, and even participants who would not prefer or encounter these conditions in real life are forced to deal with them in an experiment. While the ability to choose one’s circumstances may be sometimes limited, inclusion of the possibility of self-selection of participants in different conditions would allow for generalization of experimental findings even in situations where people can select their environment and it would thus improve external validity of experiments.

From a practical perspective, our results show the importance of influencing self-selection of people into companies, departments, and other groups. If individuals motivated only by self-interest perceive public office as an opportunity to enrich themselves, the people with low moral character will seek to become civil servants and politicians. Indeed, studies conducted in India show that people who cheat in a laboratory task are more likely to prefer public sector jobs (Banerjee, Baul & Rosenblat, 2015; Hanna & Wang, 2017). Likewise, Ukrainian law students who cheat and bribe in experimental games are more likely to aspire to careers such as judges, prosecutors, and government lawyers (Gans-Morse, 2019). On the other hand, the self-selection of honest people exists in the Danish public sector (Barfort et al., 2019; for cross-country analysis, see Olsen et al., 2018). Selection of honest people in occupations in which dishonesty may have high societal costs could often be more effective than efforts trying to reduce dishonesty of people who have already chosen them.

The reported studies tested many effects, especially related to moderation of the studied effects by personality characteristics. While some of the tested effects were supported by strong evidence or replicated in a subsequent study, other effects were supported by weaker evidence, or the pattern of results between studies was more ambiguous. We did not control the experiment-wise error rate because we were not primarily interested in whether there is any significant association. However, the number of tested effects means that there is a higher chance that some of them are falsely positive or negative, and the positive results supported by weaker evidence should be interpreted with caution and subject to future replications.

The design used in this article can be further extended in various ways. In particular, it is possible that any determinants of cheating that have been observed in experiments without taking self-selection into account may not influence people who would be actually present in real-world cheating-enabling environments (Houdek, 2017, 2019). Such environments may include only individuals with low levels of honesty-humility personal traits who are prepared to cheat regardless of any intervention. Moreover, if an intervention makes cheating more reprehensible or costly to these individuals, they may simply move to a similar environment without the intervention. The self-selection may eventually negate any positive effects of the intervention on the overall level of cheating (e.g., Nettle, Nott & Bateson, 2012). Future studies may directly test this potential implication of our findings.

Another topic for future research are reasons for self-selection into groups. These reasons might vary and result in a specific composition of a group, which can further influence behavior of its present or future members. For example, in certain professions (investment banker, salesperson, advertiser), dishonesty or deception could be perceived as a signal of a person’s skills, and honest people may therefore avoid these professions. Such adverse selection could eventually lead to persistent dishonesty in these professions (Gunia & Levine, 2016). Yet another possibility for extension is to examine whether selection affects enforcement and punishment. With more cheaters, enforcement and punishment may be more diffused, which may attract additional cheaters in the group (Conley & Wang, 2006). While we have considered a monetary fee associated with the choice of the cheating-enabling environment, another possibility is to include non-monetary costs — such as reputational — of choosing the cheating-enabling environment. Finally, all the cheating behavior in our experiments might have been perceived as basically victimless. Future research may examine self-selection in cases where cheating has identifiable victims.

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