Studies by Duke University professor Dan Ariely and colleagues indicate that most people are inclined to cheat, despite the fact that “we want to view ourselves as honest, wonderful people.” The trick in maintaining our integrity is by cheating just a little. “ As long as we cheat just a little bit, we can still view ourselves as good people,” Ariely says.

Here is how Ariely reaches his conclusion that most people cheat: he and his colleagues administered a test in which people had five minutes to solve as many problems as they could. They were rewarded with $1 for each correct response. At the end of the quiz, the tester announced the correct answers and respondents gave themselves a score. They were then told to shred their answer sheets and go to the tester, tell him the number of correct answers and collect their money. At this point only the respondents knew whether they were telling the truth or not regarding their scores.

About 60 percent of the 30,000 people tested cheated on their answers. “We had a dozen or so bad apples [who stole about $150],” Ariely says, “and about 18,000 little rotten apples, each of them just stole a couple of dollars.”

Ariely knows that people cheated because he did a little cheating himself. The shredder really didn’t shred the entire paper, only the sides, so the researchers had the answers really given by their subjects.

“What we find is people basically solve four and report six . . . . We find that lots of people cheat a little bit; very, very few people cheat a lot.”

Of course, lots of little cheating adds up to big losses. In this case, it costs the researchers $36,000.

One reason for the large-scale small cheating is the diffusion of responsibility. We see what we do as so small as to be negligible. So it makes no difference if I don’t turn off lights when I leave the room or hide a few dollars of income on my tax form. By themselves these are insignificant things that don’t amount to much to me but cumulative are very significant.

What we do matters. We just don’t see the accumulated consequences and conclude that our actions really don’t count. One of my favorite adages, attributed to Voltaire, sums up this unfortunate trait nicely. “No snowflake thinks itself responsible for an avalanche,” he wrote.

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