The Good, the Bad and the ‘Radically Dishonest’

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The Good, the Bad and the ‘Radically Dishonest’

And then were those, about 8 percent, who flipped multiple times until they got heads, and reported that result, to collect the money. This group was labeled “cheating non-liars.”

“This group is the most interesting to us,” Dr. Pascqual-Ezama said. “They’re willing to cheat, but they don’t lie about the last roll.”

The mentality behind this behavior is likely somewhere contained in the ancient wisdom that holds, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

But it also fits well into a vast literature detailing the many 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?”; or “The larger mission is more important than some small infraction.”

More recently, Dr. Mazar and Dan Ariely, a psychologist at Duke, have enriched this theory, with a concept called Self-Concept Maintenance. “These are the various psychological tricks, if you will, we play on ourselves to justify lying and cheating,” Dr. Mazar said.

In the new research, cheating in (presumed) private was one thing; but, for the “cheating nonliars,” lying about it entailed another, slightly higher threshold. “Cheating participants who toss multiple times are failing only to follow instructions to the letter,” the paper concludes, whereas lying “is a signal of a general character trait, namely, that one is willing to state something that is false for a monetary benefit.”

Finally, the Spanish and U.S. researchers ran an additional experiment, with another 170 participants, this time giving them a (digital) die to roll; a roll of 1 earned $1, a roll of two earned $2, and so on; a roll of six was unlucky and netted nothing. A similar breakdown emerged of honest people, liars, multiple rollers and the “radically dishonest” — another 8 percent, who didn’t bother to roll at all and simply put their hand out.

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