When Are Honest People Dishonest

What role do ethics training and ethics communication programs have in protecting an organization against fraud, waste, and abuse?  Some people think that ethics and morals should be taught in youth and shouldn’t be taught to adults.

In an article “The Dishonesty of Honest People” published by Duke’s Dan Ariely, UC San Diego’s On Amir, and the University of Toronto’s Nina Mazar, the authors cover the psychological and financial considerations when determining whether to be (dis)honest.

They highlight that brain imaging shows that following the “norms and values” of society activates the same reward centers in the brain as extrinsic rewards such as money and food.  As such, people place value and are “rewarded” when they have a self concept as an honest person.  The authors hypothesize that if people are reminded of societal expectations or norms that they will be more likely to be honest (not cheat) so as not to negatively impact their self-view.   In other words, honesty increases as attention to standards for honesty increases.

Indeed, the results of the experiments show that being reminded of an honesty expectation, through various means such as reviewing an honor code (in one experiment) or being asked in a separate task to list the 10 commandments (in another experiment), completely eliminated cheating.

A separate group of students was asked to forecast the results of the experiments.  They overestimated the amount of cheating that would occur and underestimated the effect of providing honesty reminders.  The authors conclude “The results of the honor code, Ten Commandments, and token manipulations are promising, because they suggest that increasing people’s attention to their own standards for honesty and decreasing the categorization malleability could be effective remedies.”

This directly relates to the importance of organizational ethics training and communications programs.  The distinction is that people aren’t taught ethics or morals by these programs; instead, they are reminded of the cultural expectation.  The return on investment to implementing such programs is high when considering the hundreds of billions of dollars lost each year to employee theft and fraud.