One Blindingly Simple Way to Improve Honesty


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.
An opportunity to cheat
In the first experiment, the researchers collaborated with an insurance company. They reviewed 13,488 policies covering 20,741 cars. In half of the policy review statements, people were asked to sign a statement reading: "I promise that the information I am providing is true" before estimating how far they'd driven in the previous year. The other half signed the same statement only after making the estimate.
  • 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.
In another experiment, participants were given the opportunity overstate how well they did solving a numerical puzzle (each correct answer earned them money) or to inflate their commuting costs, which the researchers promised to reimburse. They were asked to input their income and expenses into what looked like a standard tax form.
  • 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.
Are people really as willing to cheat as this study implies? And could something this simple really help?

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Image courtesy of flickr user John-Morgan.
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.