Counteracting Liars, Cheaters and Thieves

 Did you know Britons are becoming less honest according to a recent study? This was brought to my attention in a blog post from Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. This particular post caught my eye because he referred to people looking to their peers for behavioral cues when he wrote:
Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the most appreciable differences were found among different age groups. Young people were significantly more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people—for instance, only around 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable as opposed to 55% of people over 65. Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty.
The problem is that over time, if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty, it is likely to continue. Because we generally look to our peers for cues on what kinds of behaviors are acceptable, if lying on job applications seems to be par for the course, it will increase in frequency. So does this mean that England will be governed by degenerates in a few decades? I guess we’ll see.
Something that will influence the direction of the county will be how the survey information is conveyed. Ariely’s reference to peers looking to others for cues on how to behave is the principle of consensus at work in rather dramatic fashion. It’s unfortunate but true that people will behave as they see others behaving. If kids see or learn about other kids cheating, many more will cheat because they believe they too can get away with it.
There was an interesting study done in the Seattle area with kids during Halloween. When trick-or-treaters came up to the door they were told to only take one piece of candy then the parent turned and walked away. When children were by themselves only 7.5% took more than one piece. However, when they were in groups, more than 20%, nearly triple, took more than they were supposed to. It was a classic case of kids looking to their peers then doing what they did. Billy might not have taken extra candy when he was alone but when he saw little Johnny take two or three pieces he decided to also.
Another application of consensus we’re all familiar with takes place on the highway. Have you ever come up to a sign that alerts you to the fact that there is construction ahead and lanes are merging? Most of the time drivers play nice and fall in line as soon as they can but every now and then someone gets impatient, pulls out of line and zooms to the front before darting into the last available opening. When that happens it always seems to give permission to other drivers to follow suit and in the end everyone waits in traffic even longer because of the impatient few.
Back to the study. Merely reporting how Britons are becoming less honest and showing rising numbers is likely to make the problem worse as more people consider actions they would not have otherwise — just like the kids in the Halloween study.
So how can concerned people possibly counteract this? If I were charged with reporting the findings, but not wanting to cause the problem to get worse, I might write something like this:
Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty. Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the appreciable differences are between younger and older Britons. Young people seem to be more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people – for instance, only about 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable. However, more than half (55%) of people over age 65 said lying on a job application was never justifiable.
One could conclude if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty it is likely to continue and spread over time as the young become older and account for a great potion of the country’s population. But let’s pause for a moment
and reflect on older people’s view on the subject. Perhaps nearly twice as many older Britons view the same behavior as intolerable because they have more life experience and appreciate how society works better when people play by the rules. Maybe those young people who feel the need to grab what they want at any cost will come to the same conclusion their older, wiser fellow countrymen have come to. Only time will tell.
So here’s my persuasion advice: next time you have negative news to share about how a group or groups of people are behaving (lying, cheating, stealing, etc.) give pause to consider the following:
  • Will my presentation help or hurt in terms of encouraging the behavior?
  • How can I present the information in an accurate manner and enhance the social good at the same time?

Ultimately what needs to be shared is how people who are
doing things right, honestly and ethically, are behaving. The more people hear about and read about that socially beneficial behavior the more likely they are to conform to the good and not the bad so in the end we’re all better off.
If you’re viewing this by email and want to listen to the audio version click here. If you want to leave a comment click here.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You
Learn to Hear “Yes”.
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