Insurance companies and tax collectors resort to the same tactic to make sure their customers-or taxpayers-are telling the truth: At the end of a policy form or a tax return, they ask the filer to sign a statement attesting to their honesty.
That doesn't seem to work so well. In a series of four experiments, Lisa L. Shu, Francesco Gino, and Max H. Bazerman, all of Harvard University, together with Nina Mazar of the University of Toronto and Dan Ariely of Duke University, show that signing a statement at the end of a tax return or insurance premium review does nothing to promote honesty. Folks who signed such a statement were no more or less likely to cheat than those who didn't. But the researchers did find one very effective way to promote honest behavior: Simply ask filers to sign the statement of ethics at the beginning of the form-before it's been filled out-rather than the end. As the researchers write:
"...simply moving the signature line from the end to the beginning of a form will bring one's moral standards into focus, right before it is most needed... When signing at the end of a form, the "damage" has already been done; by the time individuals have filled out the form, they have already engaged in various mental tricks and justifications that allow them to maintain a positive self-image despite having cheated.
- People who signed first said they drove more miles. On average, people who signed the statement of honesty before estimating their mileage reported driving 2,428 miles more than those who signed at the end. That's approximately 10.25 percent more miles than those who signed at the end.
- Signing the tax form before filling it out dramatically cut down on cheating. Some 37 percent of those who signed the tax form before starting their calculations were found to have cheated. Of those who signed the form at the bottom, after filling it out, a whopping 79 percent cheated.
- Participants claimed the fewest expenses if they signed the form before filling it out. Those who signed first claimed an average of $5.27. Those who signed last claimed $9.62-about the same as those who didn't have to sign any ethics statement.
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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.