Keeping people honest

Much has been said about honesty and morality, and claims have been made to the effect that there are two types of people out there, those who are moral, and those who are immoral, and that most people are honest, and would not e.g. commit fraud.

Although it is certainly a pleasant thought, the idea is bunk. Hogwash. Quite simply not true. This has been the topic of a significant amount of scholarly work, and it has also been featured in literature of popular science. One episode of the podcast Planet Money told the story of someone, an upstanding business man, who – despite a significant formative experience in early life, not only committed fraud himself, but engaged a number of other people to help him do so.

If, then, fraud is not (exclusively) a personality trait, but rather (or at least, to a large part, in addition) a product of circumstances, what can be done to keep people honest? Research indicates that the whole thing hinges on placing the person in question in a moral state of mind.

In a recent episode, Planet Money discussed a study where the researchers moved the signature box from the end of a document to the beginning. I found the results highly interesting. “…where the signature was on the page, made a big difference. …when the signature was at the top, 37% of them lied, but when the signature was … at the bottom, the percentage went up to 79%.”

Pretty staggering difference, that, and interesting research.

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