Dan Ariely: Why People Cheat

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Today I bring you a truly fascinating talk about irrationality and cheating. Dan Ariely was a burn patient, with burns over 70% of his body. While recovering in the hospital, the nurses had a common practice of ripping off bandages, rather than removing them slowly. Ariely disagreed with this methodology (preferring slower removal), but didn't have evidence to back his argument up. When he left the hospital, he started doing experiments on pain, to figure out what indeed would be the best method of removing bandages.

But Ariely's work isn't really about pain...it's about human behavior (he's a behavioral economist). Ariely turned to the problem of cheating. He performed an experiment in which he handed a paper containing a series of math problems to his test subjects. He had them solve as many problems as they could in a limited time, then asked them to hand the papers back. He counted the correct answers and paid subjects based on the questions they got right (the average was four correct answers, for four dollars).

Then he changed the experiment: he asked people to self-report how many answers they got right...and all of a sudden, on average people were reporting seven correct answers -- a little bit of cheating. Ariely further changed the experiment by increasing the economic incentives (more money per question), altering the risk of being caught (either shredding the papers or not), and so on. What's fascinating is that he found, across the board, that his test subjects were cheating "a little bit," and were insensitive to the economic rewards as well as the risk of being caught. You'll have to watch the talk to hear how it all came out...but let's just say the experiments involved a Personal Fudge Factor, the Ten Commandments, a fake MIT Honor Code, sweatshirts, and atheists swearing on Bibles.

This is the best TED Talk I've seen in a year. It's smart, completely engaging, and it's applicable to our daily lives (as we often have small opportunities to cheat). I think you'll really dig it.

(If you can't see the player, visit the TED site. There's also a high-quality downloadable version of the talk there.)

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March 18, 2009 - 5:41am
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