Cheating for Charity

New research indicates that people may be more likely to lie when a charity benefits from their dishonesty. A group of researchers led by Alan Lewis at University of Bath investigated this tendency in the paper “Drawing the line somewhere: An experimental study of moral compromise” (ungated here). From the paper’s abstract: 

In a study by Shalvi, Dana, Handgraaf, and De Dreu (2011) it was convincingly demonstrated that psychologically, the distinction between right and wrong is not discrete, rather it is a continuous distribution of relative ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’. Using the ‘die-under-the-cup’ paradigm participants over-reported high numbers on the roll of a die when there were financial incentives to do so and no chance of detection for lying. Participants generally did not maximise income, instead making moral compromises. In an adaptation of this procedure in a single die experiment 9% of participants lied that they had rolled a ‘6’ when they had not compared to 2.5% in the Shalvi et al. study suggesting that when the incentive is donation to charity this encourages more dishonesty than direct personal gain.

The researchers also used data from a second experiment to compare the rates of self-confessed hypothetical lying among economics and psychology students.  As in previous studies, economics students don’t fare well.  “At the level of individual differences it has been demonstrated that economists are more willing to cheat,” the researchers write. “This is of some concern given that people with economics degrees hold prominent positions in financial institutions.”

(HT: BPS Research Digest)


Noble cause corruption has been known for awhile. Selfishness corruption for even longer. This is news?


No. Oddly, the paper doesn't mention where the behavior of university researchers falls on the continuum when grant money is involved.


JP and I listen to public radio regularly. But JP is a rigorous guy – regarding this as well as everything else in his life. He became concerned that the statements made during pledge drives did not add up. In particular, JP expressed skepticism about “challenge grants”– that is, funds amassed by a group of public radio members or corporate sponsors that allegedly would be withheld unless listeners pledged some matching amount within a specified period. JP doubts that these funds are ever actually withheld. Thus, JP speculated that donors are being misled, relying to their detriment on a false premise that their donations actually trigger still more donations that public radio would not otherwise receive.

My reaction: Maybe; maybe not; who cares? I reasoned as follows:

1. Public radio is simply seeking charitable donations – and JP has not alleged that any of the donated funds were misappropriated. The people who give to public radio expect to get almost no incremental benefit in return – so how could anyone claim that they relied to their detriment on pledge drive claims?

2. JP is a “sustaining member” and doesn’t change the amount he gives regardless of what’s happens during the pledge drive. So what’s it to him?

But I must admit that I’m not really persuaded by Rationales 1 and 2. Ultimately, I realized that my disinterest reflects the fact that I’m not all that offended at the idea of cheating for a good cause – and, in particular, a cause I support.


Enter your name...

I have JP's qualms about the matching-gift lies, but the difference between JP and me is that I know for certain that they are lies, both because I've done a lot of fundraising for charities during the last decade, when this trend has taken firm hold of the industry, and also because in the case of public radio, I've personally been solicited to make the match for the then-upcoming on-air pledge drive—and the fact is that if they're receiving the matching money in advance, then it s not possible for that gift to be conditional on your donations during the pledge drive.