Steve wouldn’t describe himself as a cheat. In fact, he considers himself a pretty honest person.
Steve is an Excel whiz, and he’s in charge of the books at his firm. It’s his job to tabulate the company’s tax-deductible costs. If he gets a certain sum, he and his colleagues will be eligible for a bonus this year.
While doing his calculations one evening, Steve drags his cursor over one too many columns, thereby adding some extra deductible costs to the total.
Steve hardly considers this behaviour cheating. If someone were to bring this error to his attention, he could reasonably justify it as a mistake — after all, there were tons of numbers on the sheet, and it wasn’t totally clear which ones he needed to add up. He goes home that night feeling satisfied with his work.
As it turns out, this situation is more common than you might think. According to new
research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, when people find themselves in ambiguous situations, they’re more likely to make “mistakes” that serve their self-interest. That’s because the ambiguity is a way to justify their behaviour, allowing them to still feel like honest people.
“People will bend the rules to the extent that they can maintain an honest self-view,” study co-author Shaul Shalvi tells Business Insider.
The researchers based their conclusions on several experiments. In one, participants watched a computer screen that displayed the rolls of six dice. They were then asked to report the number that appeared on the die that fell closest to a specified target on the screen. They were also told that they’d be paid according to the value they reported — the higher the number, the larger the sum.
Results showed that people were more likely to cheat (report a higher value) when they could justify their mistakes. In other words, they were inclined to lie when they could pretend they’d accidentally reported the number on the die that landed second closest to the target.
“The more ambiguous the situation, the more likely people are to view the facts in a way that will serve their self-interest,” Shalvi says. That logic applies whether you’re talking about a dice-rolling experiment or a real-life situation, like calculating a company’s tax-deductible costs.
The question is: If it’s so easy to do, how do you prevent lying and cheating in your business?
Shalvi suggests that organisations increase transparency and make things as clear as possible to decrease ambiguity. So at Steve’s (fictional) firm, one way to increase accuracy and see fewer mistakes would be to create an Excel template in which the relevant costs are highlighted.
“Reduce the wiggle room that people have to make mistakes that serve their self-interest,” Shalvi says.
And when you’re the one who’s tempted to cheat, it helps to be aware of your human tendency to bend the facts in certain situations — so you can stop yourself from acting on it.
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