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Why You Likely Lie and Cheat a Little and What Changes That

Why You Likely Lie and Cheat a Little and What Changes That

Story at-a-glance -

  • Intriguing new research revealed that virtually everyone has the capacity to lie sometimes, but very few people cheat to the maximum degree
  • Little incentives trigger more dishonesty than a sizeable cash reward, and people were more likely to cheat when they knew others were engaging in the same behavior
  • While people want to maximize their own reward, they also want to feel like they are a good person, which may explain why people are more likely to lie and cheat “only a little”
  • When it comes to making money, many industries throw ethics and integrity out the window; the more a company has to lose, the more they are going to lie
  • A reminder of a sound moral code was the only factor that made people stop cheating, so there’s a good chance products that come from morally sound businesses will also be held up to a superior level of quality

By Dr. Mercola

In evaluating the traits of a good leader, more than half of the respondents to a Pew Research poll said honesty was absolutely essential.1

Being honest was the most important trait identified, which just goes to show you how highly honesty is valued in our society, or sadly, how it has become a rarely possessed quality by people in positions of leadership. Yet, how honest are you, really?

Have you ever lied or cheated, even just a little? An intriguing new study by Dan Ariely revealed that virtually everyone has the capacity to lie sometimes, but surprising circumstances make it much more likely. If you've ever wondered how there can be so many "corrupt" people in government or in corporations like the drug companies, this research provides a clear explanation …

What Makes Cheating More Likely?

You might think it's the promise of a big money reward that incites a person to cheat or lie, but according to new research, little incentives trigger more dishonesty than a sizeable cash reward. In a test of college students who were entrusted to record their own test scores, researchers found the students were more likely to lie about their scores if the money reward was only 50 cents, as opposed to $10.

Why might this be?

Because while people want to maximize their own reward, they also want to feel like they are a good person. Lying and reaping just another 50 cents or $1 dollar seems like just a small "white lie," whereas doing it for a bigger sum, like $10 or more, somehow seems more dishonest.

Dan Ariely writes:

"We tend to think that people are either honest or dishonest … But that is not how dishonesty works. Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists.

What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations.

On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society."

This might help explain why substituting tokens for money changed the students' cheating behavior―for the worse. And, maybe not so surprisingly, more students cheated when they knew for certain that others had, too. In variations of the test, they also found that the level of cheating was unaffected by the probability of getting caught.

What stopped people from cheating?

Quite simply, the perception of a moral code. When researchers reminded students of moral codes in connection with the tests, for instance reminding students of the schools' moral code prior to testing, no cheating occurred. The same thing happened when participants were asked to swear on a Bible -- no cheating occurred (even among self-declared atheists in the group).

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Just a Little Bit of Lying Adds Up

When all was said and done, the moral of the study was that everyone cheats a little, but very few people cheat to the maximum degree. This may sound like a good thing, but if a lot of people fudge "just a little" it adds up. Not to mention, the researchers themselves pointed out that cheating is infectious, so the more people in a group cheat, the easier, and the more prevalent, it becomes.

This clearly happens all the time in the corporate world and even in academia. Ariely writes:

" … very few people steal to a maximal degree, but many good people cheat just a little here and there. We fib to round up our billable hours, claim higher losses on our insurance claims, recommend unnecessary treatments and so on.

Companies also find many ways to game the system just a little. Think about credit-card companies that raise interest rates ever so slightly for no apparent reason and invent all kinds of hidden fees and penalties (which are often referred to, within companies, as "revenue enhancements"). Think about banks that slow down check processing so that they can hold on to our money for an extra day or two or charge exorbitant fees for overdraft protection and for using ATMs.

All of this means that, although it is obviously important to pay attention to flagrant misbehaviors, it is probably even more important to discourage the small and more ubiquitous forms of dishonesty—the misbehavior that affects all of us, as both perpetrators and victims. This is especially true given what we know about the contagious nature of cheating and the way that small transgressions can grease the psychological skids to larger ones."

What About Major Corporations Like Drug and Food Companies that Massively Influence Your Health?

Drug companies, of course, come to mind. There are many examples of outright criminals working for these companies, but there are also many "good" people employed by these giant corporations, who for one reason or another exaggerate their research just a little, fib about the effectiveness of a drug in a sales pitch to a doctor, or downplay side effects to federal regulators. This "fibbing" becomes the corporate culture, and soon what began as a series of small lies morphs into flawed research being published, dangerous drugs being approved and people dying as a result.

This occurs at all levels of production. For instance, in a 60 Minutes interview, drug company whistle-blower Cheryl Eckard described disturbing details about the gross negligence at the Cidra pharmaceutical plant, run by one of GlaxoSmithKline's subsidiaries. She noted issues such as using water contaminated with bacteria to make tablets, failures on production lines that led to inconsistent dosages, employees contaminating products by not following procedures – powerful medications were even getting mixed up and were literally put into the wrong bottles.

After eight months of reporting problems at the plant, Eckard sent a summary to seven executives detailing the numerous quality problems, warning that if the FDA knew of these issues, the plant would likely be seized.

Just weeks later, Eckard was out of a job.

Concerned for the welfare of patients taking the affected drugs, she blew the whistle and notified the FDA. Federal agents searched the plant and seized hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of defective drugs. In the end, GSK pleaded guilty to a felony: knowingly manufacturing and selling adulterated drugs, manufactured between 2001 and 2005. Clearly Eckard was not the only one who knew about the violations going on at the plant. Many employees were involved and no one spoke up because it had become "accepted" at this corporation.

The More a Company Has to Lose, the More They are Likely to Lie...

In the case mentioned above, GSK was not going to own up to the problems until they were forced to because they had millions – if not billions – of dollars at stake. And this is why the drug companies are some of the most corrupt corporations around – there are mind-boggling amounts of money on the line.

If Big Pharma's annual global market was compared to the GDP—the market value of all the output produced in a nation in one year—then Big Pharma would rank # 15 on a list of 183 nations.2 That's how BIG the pharmaceutical industry is!

When it comes to making money, many industries throw ethics and integrity out the window. The entire biotech industry is built on half-truths and claims that are largely unsupported by independent scientific reviews. And the chemical industry is not much better.

A star witness for the manufacturers of flame-retardants was recently exposed for fabricating heart-wrenching cases of infants burned to death in fires in a passionate testimony before California legislators. The incidents he cited never occurred, and the infant victims did not exist. The doctor even defended his use of bold-faced lies to influence legislators, stating he was not under oath!

Even Your Doctor Can Lie

If your doctor prescribes an inappropriate medication or gives you an incorrect diagnosis, would you want to know about it? Sure you would, but about one-third of doctors would rather withhold the information for fear of being sued for malpractice. This may be in the best interest of your doctor, but it's certainly not in your best interest, especially considering how common serious medical errors actually are.

A study in Health Affairs3 presented data from a survey of nearly 1,900 physicians and revealed that doctors are human too … and by that I mean, they're also capable of bending the truth:

  • One-third of physicians did not completely agree with disclosing serious medical errors to patients
  • One-fifth did not completely agree that physicians should never tell a patient something untrue
  • Amazingly 40% believed that they should hide their financial relationships with drug and device companies to patients
  • Ten percent said they had told patients something untrue in the previous year

All the More Reason to Take Control of Your Health

What can you do to protect yourself from the repercussions of the cheating masses?

When making health care decisions (including decisions about what to eat, which personal care products to use, what cleaning supplies to use in your home and so on), use critical thinking to farm out the truth from the lies and half-truths. Take control of your health by leading a healthy lifestyle so you don't come to depend on drugs and medical devices produced by unscrupulous corporations, and, for that matter, don't support unethical companies in any way at all.

You can also take responsibility for your health and do careful research on health issues that influence you or your family. If you don't believe what I share in the newsletter then do your own independent review of the topic and reach your own conclusions. 

Instead, whether you're looking for a dozen eggs or a new mattress, seek out the most ethical sources that you can – in terms of their impact on you, the environment and the welfare of others (including animals). Keep in mind, a reminder of a sound moral code was the only factor that made people stop cheating and lying, so there's a good chance products that come from morally sound businesses will also be held up to a superior level of quality.