Using behavioural insights to tackle the integrity conundrum

What makes people dishonest? And how can employers understand employees’ decision-making processes to curb dishonest actions?

People are good at being creative and rationalizing why it’s OK to cheat in small amounts, said Nina Mazar, behavioural economist and co-founder of BEworks, during the keynote presentation at Benefits Canada’s 2019 DC Plan Summit in Banff, Alta. in February.

However, many environmental factors and rationalizations can make cheating easier or harder, she said, noting these include social norms, feelings of unfairness, collectivism and whether it’s cheating by omission or commission.

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“There seems to be something different between stealing, let’s say, $10 out of a cash register versus saying something if you are about to pay and the person at the cash register hands out $10 more than they should have. At the end of the day, you’re taking $10 off a company that you should not. But one somehow feels different than the other, right?”

One example of how to curb dishonesty is reminding people of their morals before they fill out a form, said Mazar, noting many organizations also require people to sign an honour code. The placement of the signature matters, she added.

For example, Mazar worked with a U.S. car insurance company, auditing how much people drove to determine their premiums. In an experiment, half the auditing forms were sent out with a pledge of honour at the top and the other half with it at the bottom. It found people who signed the pledge of honour at the top instead of the bottom reported driving more, drawing the conclusion it prompted more honesty.

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Timing also matters when making these environmental changes, noted Mazar. If people are asked to sign an honour code at the beginning of the year, they may forget, but if they’re asked to sign it at the moment they’re facing temptation, it’s more useful, she said. “But that is also the challenge. How are you injecting these kinds of changes right at the point of temptation?”

While humans can act dishonestly, people ultimately have morals and want to be honest, said Mazar — but sometimes they require help. “The key is understanding this kind of dishonesty that’s happening. There are other ways — in addition to increasing audits, fines, punishments — where you can use these insights to inject some psychological design changes to change people’s behaviour and make it harder for people to give in to temptations.”

Read more coverage from the 2019 DC Plan Summit.