Revising Business and Tax Forms to Promote Honesty

Last Updated Jun 3, 2011 12:24 PM EDT

When people sign an agreement, a tax form or an expense voucher, they are promising that the information they've put on the document is accurate. The signature line is usually at the bottom of the form.

But when they testify before congress or in court, they are sworn in before giving testimony. So that's why a number of researchers teamed up to test whether putting a signature line at the beginning of the form might make people more truthful as they filled it out.

In other words, the signers would declare that they will tell the truth rather than that they have told the truth. It turns out such a simple move makes a big difference, and could save the US government considerable sums in tax fraud and perhaps improve your own company's accounting.

In a series of experiments, the researchers gave test subjects a strong financial incentive to lie on a variety of documents, then compared the results from those who signed at the beginning versus those who signed at the bottom. In one test where subjects filled out a tax withholding form, 79 percent of people who signed at the bottom cheated while 37 percent cheated after signing at the top. Similar results were reported in another scenario involving a car insurance form for reporting mileage.

"There is a lot of empirical evidence that suggests that we do care, as individual beings, about being good and moral," Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino tells HBS Working Knowledge. "But there is equally compelling evidence that we often cross ethical boundaries when we have the opportunity to do so. Our research identifies an effective way to curb cheating: We just need to be reminded to care at the right times. This reminder can be a very simple one, and it is something that could be applied in many different contexts."

When to Sign on the Dotted Line? Signing First Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self-Reports was written by Gino, Lisa L. Shu, and Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School, Nina Mazar of the University of Toronto, and Dan Ariely of Duke University.

The group plans more experiments, this time on common business forms such as expense reports and medical forms. They also will present their conclusions to the IRS.

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(Photo from Flickr user PremierofAlberta, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.