Subtle Difference Makes People More Honest

How many of you lie for personal gain? You know, finding a couple of extra deductions on your tax form that don’t really exist or “forgetting” to report that extra couple of thousand dollars. Or maybe you underreport how much you drive your car in an effort to save a few dollars per month on insurance premiums?

Nobody wants to fess up? Because according to statistics, there’s plenty of people out there who do similar things on a regular basis. In 2006, it was estimated that the total magnitude of insurance fraud was $80 billion. The annual tax gap between actual and claimed taxes due in the United States amounts to about $345 billion dollars.

Think about that one the next time your favorite program comes under the scalpel.

Surely, there must be a way to get people to be more honest, short of inundating the drinking water with a truth serum? According to recent research co-authored by Lisa Shu of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, there is. And it’s a pretty simple and harmless change.

Simply move the signature stating your truthfulness to the front of the form.

The technique worked in two recent experiments reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the first, college students were give a math test for which their scores earned them money. Also, they were reimbursed traveling expenses to the facility where the test was taken. After it was over, they filled out a form to collect their cash.

When the signature was at the top, 37 percent of the students cheated on their test scores and claimed an average of $5.27 in reimbursements. In comparison, those with the form at the bottom cheated 79 percent of the time and claimed an average of $9.62 for their troubles. And just to make sure, some students were given a form with no signature required at all, and they actually cheated less and claimed less than those with the bottom signature, though the amount was not statistically significant.

What’s more, the subtle change worked in the real world as well.

The researches partnered with an auto insurance company and convinced them to change half of their forms to require the signature at the top. With 13,488 forms completed covering 20,741 cars, the results showed that signing first caused people to report an extra 2,500 miles, on average.

Now, one could argue that the difference was legit, and that the people who got the different form simply drove more. But in a randomized trial with that many people responding, it is highly unlikely. That’s a full 10.25 percent increase in the reporting of miles driven.

It makes sense if you think about it. Being reminded to be honest before completing the directions seems quite logical. After all, you don’t swear on the Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, after you’ve given testimony.

Or, as the authors themselves put it, “When signing comes after reporting, the morality train has already left the station.”


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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