Garden-variety lies and corner-cutting are not uncommon, but where is the boundary between this sort of behavior and more egregious dishonesty? In a new paper, researchers in Spain have created what The New York Times calls “a field guide of lying and cheating patterns”…at least among participants in simple lab experiments”.
Researchers instructed 180 participants to perform a coin flip, electronically, and report the outcome. If heads, they won $5; if tails they won nothing. Unbeknownst to participants, the research team could track each coin toss. After the trial, the researchers factored out everyone who got lucky and flipped heads on their one try. The remaining participants fell into distinct groups. Some 20 percent were honest, flipping tails and reporting tails. Ten percent flat-out lied, rolling tails and reporting heads, for the reward. A third group didn’t bother to roll at all, and reported heads — they were “radically dishonest,” as the authors put it. Finally, about 8 percent flipped multiple times until they got heads, and reported that result to collect the cash. This group was termed “cheating non-liars.”
“This [last] group is the most interesting to us,” said lead author Dr. Pascqual-Ezama of Universidad Complutense de Madrid. “They’re willing to cheat, but they don’t lie about the last roll.” The mentality behind this behavior fits well into a vast literature detailing the psychological outs that people give themselves when cutting corners or breaking rules, small and large. Beginning in the 1990s, the psychologist Albert Bandura called these rationalizations “moral disengagement.” It’s a process of preserving self-respect by justifying cheating or worse, with thoughts such as, “Everyone cheats, why should I be shortchanged?”
Dr. Pascual-Ezama says coin-flips and dice-rolls are hardly a reliable guide for how people will behave in the world, where they face much greater, and often competing, social and professional pressures. “Still,” says the Times, “that 8 percent seems like a good group to interview about the developmental and childhood sources of compulsive lying-cheating syndrome. If they’d come clean, that is.”
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