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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)